Robin Yassin-Kassab

Sect or Sense?

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The Lebanese government wants to remove surveillance cameras at Beirut airport, and has suspended the official in charge of airport security because of his links with Hizbullah. Hassan Nasrallah has responded by warning that the government plans to turn the airport into a base for the CIA and Mossad. For the last two days Hizbullah and Amal supporters have closed roads leading to the airport.

The government aims to dismantle Hizbullah’s communications system, which one minister referred to as “Iran telecom.” Nasrallah describes this move as “a declaration of war,” and he may not be exaggerating. Israeli inability to destroy Hizbullah communications in 2006 meant that Israel was unable to achieve any of its war aims. The destruction of the system now would leave Hizbullah vulnerable to assassinations and full scale military attack from Israel.

Yesterday Hizbullah and the much less disciplined Amal supporters on one side and Sunni pro-government people fought each other on the streets and abused each other in the grossest sectarian terms. At least eleven people died. Nasrallah ominously announced that while the resistance’s weapons would never be used for internal political purposes, the weapons would be used “to protect the resistance’s weapons.” Lebanese have learnt to keep calmer for longer since the 15-year tragedy which destroyed them, and they may yet weather this storm. But Lebanon is now closer to civil war that it has been at any time since 1990.

The context to this is that the country has been split down the middle since the departure of Syrian forces. The government is made up of Sunni parties allied with the small Druze minority, and is led by big businessmen and the traditional heads of big families. The opposition houses the Shia community and is more closely linked to working class Lebanon. The Christians are divided, with the old civil war Phalange fascists supporting the government and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement backing the opposition. The government, which inaccurately calls itself the ‘majority’, does not represent the Shia at all, who are the country’s largest sect. The two sides are unable to agree on a candidate for president, or on the opposition’s demands for a veto-wielding third of cabinet seats. (This seems to be a reasonable demand, given that Lebanon can only be run by compromise and consensus, and that the opposition represents more than a third of the people). If the opposition is backed by Syria and Iran, the government is backed by Saudi Arabia, America, France and, less directly, Israel.

It is almost certain that the latest provocation has been encouraged by an American administration wanting to bring things to a head before it is replaced. There are some people who pray for Hizbullah to kill Sunni civilians, because this would damage the resistance’s standing in the wider Arab and Muslim worlds. Opinion polls show that Hassan Nasrallah and Bashaar al-Assad are the most popular leaders on the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab street. Outside of Lebanon, sectarianism has not coloured people’s judgement, despite the steady stream of sectarian propaganda from the pro-American regimes and Saudi-owned press and screen media. Arabs generally side with anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist forces, which scares and upsets the clients. In Syria, for instance, Hizbullah is wildly popular even with those Sunnis who are religiously prickly about Shia Islam. You often find the portrait of Nasrallah on the walls of Syrian Christian homes.

Of course, Syrians or Egyptians do not have to live in Lebanon. There are many Lebanese who have justified fears of Hizbullah’s state within a state. There are many who ask why Lebanon should endlessly suffer in confrontation with zionism, for the sake of Syria’s Golan, or Palestine, or for pan-Arab or pan-Islamic ideologies that may never be victorious. After all, Israel has now left Lebanese territory except for the Shebaa Farms, and most Lebanese hostages have been released from Israeli cells. Why not disarm the resistance and let the state rule?

But what is this state in which political disagreements always fracture the country along sectarian lines? (It is upsetting to see working class Sunnis acting as street fighters against the resistance on behalf of millionaire capitalists like Hariri and Sinyora – a perfect example of ‘false consciousness’). What is this state in which the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shii Muslim? This state in which the vote of a Shii farmer is worth about half that of a Maronite businessman? The demand that the national army have a monopoly of armed force would be justifiable if the army were not liable to split into sectarian factions at the first sign of serious trouble. Lebanon is a country in which the sects hate each other, and in which all communities have historically served outside powers in order to gain leverage over their neighbours. For the resistance to maintain its excellence it must maintain its internal unity and its impermeability to Israeli spies. It is doubtful that this would be possible in a ‘national’ framework. It is more than doubtful that Israel would leave Lebanon alone if there were not a strong Lebanese resistance to deter aggression and exploitation.

Is it possible for this state – created by the French from the core of Maronite Mount Lebanon, with Orthodox, Shia, Sunni and Druze areas tacked on – to become a nation? I will outrage many patriotic Lebanese by saying that I suspect not. It would have been better if it had never been peeled away from Syria, which is also a patchwork of sects and ethnic groups, but with a more definite Arab centre of gravity. This is not the same as saying that incorporating today’s Lebanon – which has a vibrant and admirable freedom of speech and lifestyle that no other Arab state can match – into the Ba’athist dictatorship is in any way workable. Syria has to change before the two states could learn to make the border matter less.

In the meantime, a serious attempt should be made to prove pessimists like me wrong, to show that Lebanon could become a true nation. Hizbullah has sought to reassure the other sects by not seeking a one-man one-vote system in Lebanon. They have done this both because they fear the inevitable accusations of seeking Shia dominance, and because they benefit from the confessional system to the extent that they are seen by the Shia as the final guarantor of Shia power and pride. But it is time to rock the boat, and work for real representation. Hizbullah’s recent opening of its military ranks to Sunni and Christian reservists shows that the party possesses the imagination required for this next step.

My aunt owns a house in West Beirut that has been repeatedly damaged by war. Here in Oman we have a Lebanese friend who lost tens of members of her family to the Israeli onslaught in 2006. And those are my nearest links to physical danger in Lebanon. Having established that I don’t have to risk my life for my Lebanese opinions, and that I recognise that I might have different politics if my children went to school in Beirut (but I expect not), I must now express the following:

The Arab world has waited 60 years for an organisation that can stand up militarily to Israel, and longer than that for a force that can hold back the West. Hizbullah is a rare historical occurrence. Without Hizbullah, Israel would not have retreated from its decades-long occupation of South Lebanon. Without Hizbullah, Israel would not be considering any kind of withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights. Without Hizbullah, the Palestinian resistance would be alone. Without Hizbullah, the poor Shia of south Lebanon and the Beirut suburbs would still be deprived of infrastructure and strong political representation. The existence of a strong and strengthening Hizbullah makes possible a much more wide-ranging Arab victory over Zionism in the future. Hizbullah, furthermore, provides a shining example to all Arabs of what ordinary people – as opposed to police states, bureaucratic armies or nihilist terror groups – can do socially, economically and militarily when armed with commitment, humility and intelligence. It would be a tragedy to lose Hizbullah. Do the Lebanese and Arabs of all sects have the maturity to avoid civil strife and to protect the resistance?

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

May 9, 2008 at 9:09 am

Posted in Lebanon

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