By Yanis Iqbal
The Israeli bombing of Gaza has generated ripples in Lebanon’s political atmosphere. Palestinian refugees and Lebanese civilians have travelled to the border with Israel, proudly waving Palestinian flags and banners of the Hezbollah and Amal movements. However, the field of Palestinian discourse in Lebanon is not an uncontested one. Lebanese Forces – a Christian political party – has burned the flag of Palestine, vehemently conveying the existence of an anti-Palestine camp within Lebanon. These ideological fault lines need to be looked at in the evolving context of a charged conjuncture which has prompted Lebanon’s Christian forces to further radicalize themselves.
On April 28, 2021, Christian parties in Lebanon called for the collective resignation of Parliament, accusing Hezbollah of dominating the country. The Maronite-dominated Independence Movement, the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb (Phalange) Party and the National Liberal Party spoke with one voice about the necessity of “neutrality”, decrying “the prevailing state of chaos…which is aimed at turning Lebanon into a failed state, dragging it into agendas that serve foreign interests at the expense of the country’s identity and historic role, and isolating it from countries that can help it overcome the current crisis in order to further stifle it.”
The increasingly chauvinistic stance of Christian forces reeks of inflammatory civil war rhetoric. Their recent initiatives hearken back to the days of the Lebanese Front – a coalition of parties formed in 1976 in response to Muslim challenges to Maronite supremacy. The immobilism advocated by the Lebanese Front is best expressed in the following statement addressed to the French envoy Couve de Murville: “The New Lebanon the Lebanese Front wants is the original and millennial Lebanon with its 6,000 years’ continuous heritage… and including its miraculous achievements.”
Today, the Christian parties in Lebanon are attempting to resuscitate and sharpen the edges of a long-existing socio-political conservatism. The context for this kind of sectarian revivalism is provided by the economic turbulence being experienced by Lebanon. Due to the highly unstable material conditions prevailing in the country, opportunistic political forces have been re-orienting themselves to capture the discontent of the masses with a totally unresponsive system. The Kataeb (Phalange) Party has been at the forefront of this endeavor – attempting to use the crisis in Lebanon to place itself in a prime position for forming a new government.
The leader of the Kataeb Party, Nazar Najarian, was killed in the Beirut blast. Using this opportunity, three party MPs stepped down from parliament, with Party President Samy Gemayel stating – like his predecessors – all should join them in the birth of a “New Lebanon.” Such was the extent of Phalangist propaganda that even the slogans of the Kataeb began infiltrating the movement against Lebanon’s neoliberal-clientelistic system. In particular, the slogan of “Disarm Hezbollah” or “Beirut is a city free from weapons” was used by some protestors. This echoes the Kataeb demand that Hezbollah relinquish all weapons under the cover of “democracy” and “constitutionalism”.
This is all a charade, and a distraction. The Kataeb Party is not interested in helping the people. This is the party that perpetuated multiple massacres alongside the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) against Palestinians and Arab socialists in the Lebanese civil war. The motive for these moves is to shift the people’s movement away from demanding the fall of the entire system towards simply a shift of government. The Kataeb Party is no doubt hoping that Hezbollah will be brought down, allowing them to get elected. These are the same sectarian games that the Lebanese people have seen time and again. It is precisely these maneuvers and divisions that in the past led to a civil war, where the poor masses paid the price.
While the meltdown of Lebanon’s neoliberal economy has acted as the immediate impetus for the political opportunism of Christian forces, the deeper roots of such acts can be found in the emergence of a new political arena from 2005. On February 14, 2005, the Sunni business magnate and politician Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, the victim of a truck bomb explosion as his motorcade passed along the Beirut seafront. Prime minister for 10 of the 15 years since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, Hariri had established himself as the dominant figure of Lebanese politics. His death signaled the slow breakdown of the system in which he had thrived – one based on a clear division of the spoils of post-war Lebanon between Lebanese politicians and Syria, whose troops had been present in Lebanon since 1976, and which emerged as the country’s de facto ruler after 1990.
Hariri – who had made his wealth as a building contractor in Saudi Arabia and continued to benefit from the support of that country’s royal family – initiated a programme of liberalization, which sought to transform the country into a regional hub for transport, tourism, and banking, a place where wealthy Gulf Arabs could feel comfortable spending their holidays. While free to what he wanted on the economic front, his political decisions were constrained by the powerful presence of the Syrian security apparatus. Ghazi Kanaan, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon until 2002, and his successor, Rustum Ghazali, examined electoral candidates, approved appointments, and kept a tight watch on dissent, using their Lebanese minions as local enforcers.
Hariri chafed at this architecture of indirect rule; he expressed his displeasure at moves such as the decision to extend by 2 years the term of the Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud – an underling of Damascus, and one of his most bitter rivals. For many at the time, the detonation that killed Hariri could only have been the work of the Syrian security services. Within days, crowds began to gather in Martyrs’ Square, in central Beirut, chanting slogans laying the blame for his death squarely on the Syrian Baathist regime and its Lebanese allies. Slowly, these protests crystallized the anti-Syrian sentiments of a section of Lebanese civilians.
Week by week, the demonstrations in Martyrs’ Square grew larger, culminating in a massive gathering on March 14 – a month to the day after Hariri’s death. As a sea of people filled Martyrs’ Square, the immediate withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon became a central issue. Meanwhile, diplomatic pressure on Damascus to withdraw intensified – from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which had passed Resolution 1559 in September 2004 calling for the withdrawal of all “foreign forces” from Lebanese territory; the US, eager to weaken Syria’s sphere of influence; Saudi Arabia, which had seen Hariri as one of its own; and France, whose president, Jacques Chirac, and Hariri had been friends. By late April, Assad was ready to put an end to Syria’s military involvement in Lebanon. On April 26, the last Syrian troops left Lebanon.
Animosity toward Damascus was not uniform throughout Lebanon. On March 8, hundreds of thousands gathered in central Beirut at the behest of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general. In an impassioned speech, Nasrallah thanked Damascus for its role as the protector of Lebanon, and condemned attempts to fracture the relations between Lebanon and Syria. The two states, he insisted, were bound together by fraternal ties, and nobody but their own governments could pronounce on the terms of their future relationship. As for Resolution 1559, which had called for the “disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias” – a phrase widely interpreted as targeting Hezbollah’s armed wing, which had held on to its weapons after the end of the civil war: 2 years after the occupation of Iraq, this was but another instance of American intervention in the Middle East, and had no other purpose but to weaken resistance to Western imperialism and Israel.
The battle lines were drawn in these March days between the two alliances that would come to define the political arena after 2005. On the one hand is the March 14 alliance. Its nucleus is the Future Movement, established by Hariri as an electoral tool within the Sunni community. The major Christians parties yearning for the re-monopolization of power belong to this alliance. The grouping presented itself as the guarantor of the country’s stability and sovereignty, adopting a discourse of state-building which emphasizes the need to bring all armed groups under the umbrella of the Lebanese government.
March 14 cultivated cozy ties with the US, the European Union, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. This naturally entailed a hostile stance to the perceived enemies of these benefactors. Thus, Hezbollah was traduced, Iran was vilified and the jihadist opposition against Assad was supported. The substantive content of the current discourse about “neutrality” is composed of these imperialist linkages. Instead of univocally proclaiming their liking for a Lebanon subordinated to the diktats of imperialist countries, the member parties of March 14 have been duplicitously raving about “sovereignty”.
On the other hand are ranged the forces of March 8 – Hezbollah, its Shia rival and partner Amal and, since February 2006, the Free Patriotic Movement of the Christian leader General Michel Aoun. March 8 has portrayed itself as part of a regional “axis” against the forces of Western imperialism, Zionism, and Wahhabist jihadism. In this view, it stands firm alongside Iran and the Syrian regime in its opposition to external plans for the division and destruction of the Middle East.
As the economic crisis in Lebanon will intensify, the dirty skirmish among the political class to get access to the levers of power will accelerate. Unconcerned about the basic demands of the Lebanese populace, the political elite is hermetically sealed in its own murky land, where wads of cash are the driving thrust for each and every action. In this ever-increasing quest for money, politicians will try their best to displace questions of class exploitation with sectarian identities. As usual, ordinary people will suffer the most in this corrupt competition.