Lebanon is fast approaching a failed state status, nearing the precipice of economic bankruptcy, social disruption and civil strife. The recent violent altercations between the Lebanese Armed Forces (and Internal Security Forces ISF) and protestors are extremely dangerous for they have created a rift between the two entities most needed for ensuring stability and political transition.
Contrary to its initial position to not use force against peaceful protesters, the LAF has used what Human Rights Watch condemned as excessive use of force. The LAF threw tear gas and fired rubber bullets at protesters to disperse them. Conversely, some protesters threw rocks and firecrackers at the LAF. By Monday January 20, following two days of violence in Beirut and other areas, over 400 persons were injured, the majority of whom from the protesters. Clearly, the LAF has been under immense pressure from political parties, including Hezbollah, for their actions cannot be separated from the political maneuvering of their leadership who are trying to protect their political survival. The ISF and parliament police, which have been most harsh with protesters, answer in no small measure to former Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and the Shi’a Speaker of the House Nabih Berri’s Amal movement, respectively.
Yet the core of the Command leadership of LAF is apprehensive of the deepening rift between them and protestors. This core believes its acquiescence to the country’s political leadership is a necessary evil to prevent the army from disintegrating along confessional lines, as happened during the civil war, or paving the way for civil strife including an open confrontation with Hezbollah. Interestingly, Hezbollah, which initially sent its thugs to beat protesters and trash their tents in the capital, has signaled to the protesters its readiness to support their reformist demands. At the same time, Hezbollah enjoined its wrangling allies to realign their priorities in order to forge a new coalition government, which was formed under the premiership of American University professor Hassan Diab.
This dangerous and convoluted situation is not only the product of the Iran-US deepening tension in the region but also of the country’s confessional dynamics in relation to Iran and Syria’s meddling in Lebanon’s state of affairs. On the surface, observers had imputed the inability to form a government to American objection of creating one under the suzerainty of Hezbollah. Others blame the political parties for their selfish and insatiable interest in confessional power and spoils of the state. On a deeper level, however, a stealthy scuffle had taken place between Syria and its allies in Lebanon, supported by Russia, on one side, and Hezbollah, supported by Iran, on the other.
In contrast to conventional wisdom about Lebanon’s politics, as astutely observed by former parliamentarian Basem Schabb, “Mr Diab, far from being weak and isolated, has considerable support from Pro-Syrian factions opposed to Mr. Hariri.” Apparently, Diab tried to form a government of technocrats in conformity with the demands of protesters, with active support from pro-Syrian politicians including Jamil al-Sayyid. Reportedly, pro-Syrian factions and politicians expressed their desire to be part of the new government.
Syria, whose hegemony of Lebanon virtually dissipated following the withdrawal of its occupying forces in 2005, is apparently trying to revive its influence in Beirut. Notwithstanding the fact that it has managed to exercise its political influence in Beirut through its ally Hezbollah, the Syrian regime has had to concede to Hezbollah’s political expediencies, especially after Russia curbed Hezbollah and Iranian activities next to the border of Israel in Syria. Consequently, Hezbollah, backed by its Iranian patron, has been circumspect in allowing Syria to revive its former power in Lebanon so that Russia, Syria’s patron, would not be able to challenge Hezbollah’s policies under certain circumstances. Moreover, Syria’s stealthy desire to regain its influence in Lebanon has been frowned upon by the Lebanese Forces, Future Movement, and Druze leader Walid Jumblat, who has been indefatigably harsh in his criticism and opposition to the Syrian regime.
As a result, most political parties, though for different reasons, had shared a common reservation about Diab forming a government. Notwithstanding the fact that the Christian Lebanese Forces and Sunni Future Movement have reservations about Diab as being a front for Hezbollah, Syria and Iran’s allies in Lebanon had scuffled with each other over the extent to which Syria, and by extension Russian, should revive its power in Lebanon. Eventually, Hezbollah criticized its allies and prodded them to help create a new government. As it turned out, Hezbollah, following 33 days of wrangling over the formation of a new government, saw in the dangerous escalation of violence an opportune moment to midwife the birth of the government.
Clearly, the violence, which rocked Beirut and alarmed Washington among other capitals, has apparently offered Hezbollah an opportunity to wear the mantle of the peacemaker and statesman in Lebanon’s hodgepodge mafia-like environment. In the words of a perceptive observer Hezbollah embraced “strategic patience” until the appropriate moment when the country faced the abyss of civil strife, assuming that Lebanon’s stability coexisting with Hezbollah’s preponderance influence is more favorable than civil strife. Before long, on January 21, a new government was born filled with technocrats. However, the members of the new government were nominated by Hezbollah and its allies. In other words, the new government has worn the technocratic mask on the face of the political elite that the rebels have striven to dislodge. Moreover, on closer observation, it seems that Hezbollah has reached an agreement with the Syrian regime by placing the important interior ministry in the hands of General Muhammad Fehmi, reportedly considered close to both the Syrian regime and Hezbollah. General Fehmi served as the head of the Military Security branch in Military Intelligence during Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Thereafter, he headed the Lebanese Mine Action Center, which worked to clear Israeli cluster bombs and mines in southern Lebanon.
To be sure, the formation of the government was a virtual revolution against the popular revolution. No doubt, the protesters would not only continue but also escalate the tempo of their revolution for many of them feel they have nothing more to lose. Besides being angry and desperate, they feel their present and future and that of the country have been robbed by the gangsters who have ruled Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990. Significantly, though it’s hard to control angry people feeling trampled upon by central authorities, it’s imperative that protesters remain peaceful in withstanding the vagaries of their revolution. The revolution cannot and should not be militarized and/or turn violent, as some rebels are calling. There are already voices on social media asserting that a revolution cannot succeed without blood. This is wrong and immature. In fact, this is tantamount to suicide and/or making the hope of the political elite including Hezbollah come true, for they will in the name of stability suppress violently the revolution. Some observers look at the protests in Hong Kong as a recent example. Violence by the protesters gave legitimacy to the ruling party to maintain its position and suppress the protest.
No less significant, the revolution has a number of great leaders but it does not have a leadership to provide and implement strategy and discipline. Despite its appeal and rightful demands, the Revolution has underestimated the staying power of the political parties that have monopolized power and patronage. The revolutionary slogan removing them all (Kullun Ye’ni Kullun) is easier said than done, especially without a unified leadership and strategy. At this critical juncture, in order to save the revolution and save the country, it is essential for the leaders of the revolution to unify their ranks and outlook under one leadership and partner with retired army officers who have been supporting the revolution.
A leadership combining civil activists/leaders and honorable retired officers is essential to narrow the dangerous deepening gap between the LAF and demonstrators. Generals Khalil Helou, Chamel Roukoz, George Ghanem, among others, could play profound roles in helping secure stability while continuing the struggle for reform. Fundamentally, strategic priority should be given to early elections. The Christian Phalange party and Lebanese Forces have publicly called for early elections. Efforts must be made to bring first Harriri’s Future Movement and Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party on board, then Gibran Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement. Bassil, son-in-law of President Michel Aoun and former foreign minister will most likely follow suit, given his recent statements indicating his readiness to make concessions to save the country. It will then be difficult for Hezbollah to oppose or boycott the election.
The protesters, whose grievances, courage and aspiration for better Lebanon, have created an unprecedented non-sectarian, reformist revolutionary movement to stifle endemic corruption, patronage and foreign meddling in Lebanon’s affairs. Yet their path will be hardly navigated employing violence and/or lacking a unified leadership and strategy to challenge the formidable power and machinations of the developing Russian-Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah alliance.
*Robert G. Rabil is a professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University. He can be followed @robertgrabil and www.robertrabil.com.