March Toward Disaster

By Qifa Nabki

This morning, while various neighborhoods in Lebanon were shut down by labor strikes that quickly and predictably morphed into violent clashes between pro- and anti-government forces, I spoke to a relative of mine living in Beirut. Loyal to the opposition, my relative (let’s call him Talal) sounded doleful for the first time in a year and a half. Gone from his voice was the tone of righteous defiance and indignation that so often characterized our political discussions. In its place was glum resignation and a dispirited antipathy towards the selfishness and cynicism of Lebanon’s political elite.

“We have a government that is completely corrupt; I have no confidence in their integrity,” Talal said. “On the other hand, I am beginning to have doubts about the opposition’s allegiances.”

“Compromise between the two sides is impossible, because the government and the opposition are speaking two different languages.”

Indeed, if there is anything that unites most Lebanese on both sides of the political divide, it is precisely this sentiment that their leaders have failed – spectacularly and even willfully – to establish a common ground for communication and compromise. What’s more, they seem to be oblivious to the widespread embitterment and frustration among their constituents. Or, more likely, they are mindful of it yet interested solely in exploiting it for political gain.

If the opposition was to blame in earlier months for a shameless strategy of mixed signals, delay tactics, and ever-shifting goal posts, which negated the solutions proposed by the Arab League and other international mediators, March 14th has now become guilty of a similarly cynical set of maneuvers. Sensing a soft underbelly in the ranks of the Change & Reform Bloc after the defection of Michel al-Murr, March 14th has sought to press their advantage by attempting to drive a wedge between Hizbullah and its Christian supporters.

Did the strategy succeed? On the one hand, the rioters consisted largely of Amal and Hizbullah supporters, with no significant showing by FPM members. A survey of the Aounist blogs shows a significant degree of ambivalence toward and even criticism of the escalation of violence. On the other hand, March 14 has put itself in a game of chicken with Hizbullah which announced that the airport road will remain blocked until the government reverses its decision to dismantle the Shiite militia's communication network and to remove Wafiq Chouqeir, head of airport security. If the March 14 forces are hoping that such an ultimatum will spur resentment of Hizbullah’s "state with in a state" among its FPM supporters, we may be in for a long and nasty ride.

While both sides have paid lip service to the concept of "national dialogue", neither March 14 nor March 8 have committed themselves publicly to addressing the major problems that lie at the basis of Lebanon's current (and perennial) woes, among them: (a) the adoption of a fair electoral law; (b) the future of Hizbullah's weapons; (c) the strengthening of state institutions; (d) the establishment of democratic reforms designed to increase politicians' accountability to their constituents, and to begin the process of dismantling sectarianism. As long as these issues are swept under the rug, Lebanon will continue to falter. 

It seems that each of the two alliances has settled on a strategy of shaking Lebanon as hard as possible in the hope that the other side comes unstuck. Is it any wonder that more and more Lebanese are wishing the fate of the proverbial watermelons (Bateekh yekassir ba3do) on their inept and selfish leaders?

Here is a round-up of stories on the latest events:

Clashes erupt in Lebanon as Hezbollah stages labor strike

By SAM F. GHATTAS, Associated Press Writer Wed May 7, 3:47 PM ET

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanon's long-simmering political crisis erupted into gunfire and explosions Wednesday when a labor strike devolved into clashes between rival Hezbollah and government supporters.

Demonstrators supported by militant Hezbollah protested the U.S.-backed government's economic policies and paralyzed much of Beirut with roadblocks of burning tires. The strike turned violent when both sides began throwing stones at each other, and gunfire and explosions rang out in some areas for brief periods.

The cause of the explosions was not immediately known. There were a few injuries reported, mostly from the stone throwing.

The clashes threatened to degenerate into an all-out sectarian conflict. Shiite Hezbollah seized the offices of a major Sunni group and the fighting spread to several mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods.

Most Sunnis back Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government, while Shiites generally support the opposition led by Hezbollah, which the U.S. has labeled a terrorist organization.

The Sunnis' spiritual leader denounced the militant Shiite faction and appealed to the Islamic world to intervene.

"Sunni Muslims in Lebanon have had enough," Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani said in a televised address from his office, demanding an "end to these violations."

In unusually harsh words, he called Hezbollah an "armed gangs of outlaws" and called on the group's leaders to withdraw from Beirut's Sunni neighborhoods.

Shiite opposition supporters remained on the streets after sunset and many of the blocked roads remained closed, indicating the protest will likely continue at least until Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks at a planned news conference on Thursday.

The standoff between the two sides has lasted 17 months. It's left Lebanon without a head of state since November when opposition-allied President Emile Lahoud's term ended with the government and the opposition deadlocked on electing a successor.

Tensions reached a new high Tuesday, when the Cabinet said it would remove Beirut airport's security chief over alleged ties to Hezbollah. The militant group and leaders of the 1.2-million-strong Shiite community, believed to be Lebanon's largest sect, rejected the decision, and the airport security chief continued on the job.

Wednesday's strike was called by labor unions after they rejected a government pay raise offer as insufficient. It was largely confined to Shiite areas that back the opposition.

Striking workers caused the delay or cancellation of dozens of arriving and departing flights at Beirut's airport. Flights resumed later, but the roads to the airport remained closed, trapping scores of arriving passengers in the terminal.

Hezbollah supporters seized two local offices of Sunni parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri's group, security officials said.

Earlier in the day, an Associated Press photographer saw gunmen from Hezbollah and the allied Shiite Amal group controlled by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri shooting toward one of the buildings housing Hariri's Future Movement office. Police also were seen firing toward a building.

A cameraman for Hezbollah's al-Manar television was beaten by a soldier, the station reported. Other news reports said he was hit by stones raining down on protesters. A soldier also was hit in the mouth by a stone.

Two other news photographers were hurt by stones, according to witnesses and television reports.

Earlier in the same area, a stun grenade thrown into a crowd lightly injured three protesters and two soldiers, the state-run National News Agency said. It was not immediately clear who threw the grenade.

Opposition Vows No Retreat After Day of Clashes (Daily Star)

BEIRUT: A General Labor Confederation (GLC) strike turned political and violent on Wednesday when supporters of the opposition took to the streets and blocked the main road leading to Beirut's international airport in protest at the government's recent decision to sack the facility's security chief, General Wafiq Shoucair, and counter Hizbullah's private phone network. 

A well-informed opposition source told The Daily Star on Thursday that the opposition would not stop its protest action unless the Western-backed government reversed its decisions.

"Our movement will not stop and will change to become civil disobedience until our demands are met," the source added. "After rejecting Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's call for dialogue, the government made a number of provocative decisions. Our movement is the result of these decisions."

After an Amal Movement meeting that was headed by Berri later on Wednesday, the party held the Lebanese government responsible for the current escalation.

Hizbullah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, is due to hold a new conference on Thursday to react to the government's recent decisions.

Robert Fisk: Lebanon descends into chaos as rival leaders order general strike

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Burning tyres on the airport road, flights suspended, demands from the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt that Hizbollah moves secret cameras from runway 1-7 and end the militia's equally secret underground communications equipment. Across Corniche Mazraa, crowds of shrieking Sunni and Shia Muslims hurl abuse and stones at each other. A soldier comes up to my car at the crossroads. "Turn round," he shouts. "They're shooting."

Lebanon seems to feed on crisis, need crisis, breathe crisis, like a wounded man needs blood. The man who should be the president is head of the army and the man who believes he leads the resistance – Sayed Hassan Nasrallah of the Hizbollah – accuses Mr Jumblatt of doing Israel's work while Mr Jumblatt claims the head of Beirut airport security, Colonel Wafic Chucair, works for the Hizbollah and should be fired.

 
Yesterday, in case you hadn't guessed, was a "general strike" by opponents of the Lebanese government with all the usual chaos. Mr Nasrallah is to hold a press conference today and then we'll all find out if this latest crisis is the greatest crisis since the last great crisis. Yes, a good cup of cynicism is necessary to wash down the rhetoric and threats of the past few days. At its most serious is the incendiary language in which Lebanon's politicians now address each other, the kind of menacing words that could easily touch an assassin's heart. 

لبنان في فم التنّين

المواجَهة فُتِحت ميدانيّاً ونصر اللّه يرسم السقف اليوم والسلطة تطلب التدويل المباش

ر حتى صدور هذا العدد، لم يكن هناك ما يشير إلى تبدُّل في مسار الأمور سياسياً وميدانياً، بعدما شكّلت حوادث الأمس تحوّلاً استراتيجياً في الصراع الداخلي والإقليمي على إدارة الوضع في لبنان. وإذا كانت المعارضة قد تظلّلت بتحرّك الاتحاد العمّالي العام لتسجيل اعتراض هو الأبرز على سياسة الفريق الحاكم، فإنّ فريق السلطة أعرب عن تمسّكه بقراراته والشروع في مناقشة خطّة تحرُّك تشمل المواجهة على الأرض، والطلب إلى العالم العربي ومجلس الأمن الدولي التدخّل لحمايته في لبنان.
وبانتظار المؤتمر الصحافي للأمين العام لحزب الله، السيّد حسن نصر اللّه، المقرّر ظهر اليوم، شهدت بيروت أمس أكثر التحوّلات الميدانية عنفاً منذ وقت طويل، بعدما تجاوز الطرفان كل الخطوط الحمر وسارا بقوّة نحو مواجهة تأخذ طابعاً مسلّحاً، يتوقّع أن يستأنف اليوم، ما دام لم يبرز إلى الضوء أي تفاهم سياسي.
وأفادت مصادر مطلعة بأن المعارضة، وحزب الله على وجه التحديد، ليسا في وارد التراجع عن التحرك الذي انطلق أمس، حتى تتراجع الحكومة عن القرارات التي أصدرتها فجر الثلاثاء. وعلم أن مساعداً أمنياً للنائب سعد الحريري اقترح خلال الساعات الماضية حلاً للمشكلة، يقضي بتجميد تنفيذ قرار الحكومة القاضي بنقل العميد وفيق شقير من قيادة جهاز أمن المطار، وإصدار الحريري بياناً يَعُدّ فيه شبكة الاتّصالات جزءاً من سلاح المقاومة الذي هو خارج البحث، وهو أمر نفته مصادر على صلة بفريق 14 آذار، وقالت إن الحكومة ليست بوارد التراجع، وإن المعارضة وحزب الله يتحملان مسؤولية الخطوات التي تدرس الأكثرية النيابية اللجوء إليها، والتي تركّز على مطالبة الجامعة العربية ومجلس الأمن الدولي بالتدخّل بكل الوسائل «لحماية لبنان من انقلاب يقوده حزب الله بدعم من سوريا وإيران». وقد استعان هذا الفريق، على عجل، بمفتي الجمهورية محمد رشيد قباني في إضفاء البعد المذهبي على المواجهة القائمة، عبر إطلاقه موقفاً لافتاً في حدته بمواجهة حزب الله وإيران

Heading toward a Lebanese Divorce

By Michael Young

The Daily Star

Thursday May 8, 2008 

Once we accept that this week's alleged labor unrest was only the latest phase in Hizbullah's war against the Lebanese state, will we understand what actually took place yesterday. And once we realize that cutting the airport road was a calculated effort by Hizbullah to reverse the Siniora government's transfer of the airport security chief, Wafiq Shouqair, will we understand what may take place in the coming days.

Since last January, when Hizbullah and Amal used the pretense of social dissatisfaction to obstruct roads in and around Beirut, the opposition has, quite openly, shown itself to be limited to Hizbullah. Michel Aoun, once a useful fig leaf to lend cross-communal diversity to the opposition, has since become an afterthought with hardly any pull in Christian streets.

Long ago we learned that Hizbullah could not, in any real sense, allow the emergence of a Lebanese state free from Syrian control. Soon after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the party tried to suffocate the 2005 "independence intifada" in the egg, realizing that Hizbullah had no future as an autonomous armed group in a state that would seek to reimpose its writ after decades of subservience to Damascus. That effort failed on March 14, 2005 – mostly useful as an event in showing that a majority of people would not be intimidated by Hizbullah's rally of March 8.

Hizbullah's anxieties were understandable. As the party saw things, without a Lebanese state embracing the idea of open-ended conflict against Israel, and Hizbullah's sovereign, vanguard role in that conflict (and what state truly independent of Syria would ever want to choose so reckless a path?), Hizbullah would not be able to justify retaining its weapons. But without its weapons, Hizbullah could not exist. Post-Syria Lebanon has posed existential problems for the party, problems that began when Israel withdrew from most of South Lebanon in 2000. The irony of this situation – that Hizbullah was always most comfortable when both Syria and Israel were present in Lebanon – the latter to fight against, the former to safeguard that fight – says a lot about the party's future options. 

 
Angry Arab publishes this first-hand account of the demonstrations, on his blog:

A Western reporter in Lebanon sent me this (he does not want his name mentioned) (he is relatively new to Lebanon and it shows at a point or two–like Amal militia has a long history in thuggishness and yet it used to complain about PLO thuggishness): "spent the entire day running around all the flashpoints in beirut, wherever there were mobs, shootings, explosions, i got harassed by various militias from both sides, but i was really shocked at the behavior of amal. i've spent a lot of time with mustaqbal militiamen, who of course are thuggish and racist and their militias are getting better organized, and thats all frightening, but they seem very weak and almost cowardly when compared with the amal thugs i saw today, who were very provocative. it had nothing to do with the labor union strike for them, it was just a show of force to specifically intimidate sunnis. even in iraq i havent seen this kind of anti sunni sectarianism, its couched in anti baathi or anti wahabi language. obviously i've seen anti shiite sectarianism all over the place among sunnis in the region they had switch blades, clubs, and they even had small molotov cocktail bottles in their pockets in case they needed them. they threw stones at the army without provocation, and the army was basically letting them do whatever they wanted, and proved how weak it was, the army guys were begging the amal and hizballah guys to behave basically. it was clear today how pathetically weak the lebanese army and police are. in most cases they just stood by and watched as protesters did whatever they wanted, in other cases, depending on their affiliation, they actually physically helped both sunni and shiite militias. when the amal guys threw stones at the soldiers, all some of the soldiers did was throw them back when the call to prayer started from the sunni mosque across the street in tariq al jadida, the amal guys started shouting various religious shiite slogans, insulting sunnis etc. it was quite obvious that the hizballah men present were controlling them when they looked like they were about to cross to the sunni side. it was as if hizballah has these amal pitbulls who are just foaming at the mouth eager to attack and kill, and hizballah is letting them bark and bite a little, to show the other side that its holding the leash and can let go at any time and the amal pitbulls would destroy anything in their way, which it was very clear they wanted to do this country is so fucked, the sunni militias now run checkpoints and demand IDs and act just like shiite militias" 

 

Comments (103)


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101. Alex said:

Qifa Nabki,

I would like to suggest to you going back to 2005 and please tell me if the opposition took the M14 people to the security council and if they threatened to kill George Bush or the Saudi King like Jumblatt threatened to kill Bashar Assad.

It would not be useful to ask “who started it” in a way that is limited to Lebanese parties … if we forget the United States and Iran and concentrate on the two SS (Syria and Saudi Arabia) who happen to be hte closest sponsors of the M14 and opposition, Nasrallah was polite to the Saudis … and he continues to be polite to them until today (although a bit less than in 2005) … Jumblatt … was asking for a US invasion of Syria, he was asking for the overthrow of the Syiran regime, he was asking for killing Bashar Assad.

Hizbollah can not be the same without a very friendly Syrian regime, and M14 can not survive too long without the Kingdom’s sponsorship … so, when you ask who started it, then you should perhaps look at who started to try to choke the others through cutting their outside support.

M14 started it, and they took it to hte security council, they used their much more influential Saudi owned media empire in addition to other Neocon-friendly media (WSJ, Times of London ….) two committed presidents (Bush and Chirac) promoting Seniora and trying to take away Hizbolla’s arms …

I can’t see how you can compare that massive campaign to … “alakhbar and Franjieh …”

But I understand and appreciate your effort in trying to moderate us Syrians here who seem to be biased in favor of the opposition
: )

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May 9th, 2008, 1:57 am

 

102. Qifa Nabki said:

Alex

We are completely off topic. What does this comment have to do with the original issue? I don’t even know where to begin to address your point.

It seems to me that your biggest problem is with the anti-Syria actions of March 14 (especially Walid Jumblatt) and their allies in Washington and Riyadh. Fine. I’ve told you that I think it has become hysterical and counter-productive.

What you have to understand, however, is that hatred of Syria is not something that is cooked up in some PR office on Madison Ave. Alex, there is a LEGACY of hatred and mistrust and terrible feelings towards Syria by many, many Lebanese people. It’s not just Walid Jumblatt and his followers. I urge to speak to the Aounists and read their blogs. They are FULL of venomous anti-Syrian comments, alongside their anti-Saudi and anti-Iranian and anti-American comments.

March 14 may have exploited this, for sure, but you have to appreciate that we are dealing with a much larger history, one that goes back way beyond 2005. Hatred of Syria is not all the result of some “massive campaign”. It has something to do with history, and with SYRIA, as you know.

I’m not trying to moderate you guys! I’m simply trying to bring in a different perspective.

Khalas, this is a silly argument.

Why-Discuss, I don’t understand your point.

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May 9th, 2008, 2:17 am

 

103. Alex said:

Qifa Nabki,

Wallahi I did talk to quite a few Lebanese every week the past twenty years and I do understand the Anti-Syria sentiments… I realize they existed pre-2005.

But M14 made it their full time job to fight Syria and to create a Syrian monster in the mind of their people… I have watched the level of hate double and triple after 2005 among the Sunni and Druze Lebanese in particular …

The level of negative sentiments did not start at zero, but after the Syrians withdrew from Lebanon, it might have gone back closer to zero by now had they not worked hard to maintain it and promote it … full time… every day and every hour, for he past three years.

Now, before you think that I am blindly focused on Syria, let me explain how this is totally significant to internal Lebanese politics and to potential solutions: Imagine Nasrallah did the same since 2005 … every day calling the Saudi King a murderer and occasionally asking for an Iranian invasion of Saudi Arabia.

Wouldn’t you say that he would have guaranteed that Seniora and Hariri will never be able to make any agreement with him?

Similarly … Jumblatt and Hariri and Geagea and Seniora surely knew that they will not be able to have a deal with Hizbollah while they were attacking Syria non-stop… they were not looking for an agreement with Hizollah .. they were looking for weakening Hizbollah (by involving the Security Council and by trying to destroy Syria).

I don’t care for any other formality and superficial dialog or pretentious politeness towards Nasrallah or “al-muqawameh” … the above attitude towards Syria (Hizbollah’s main ally) says it all… since day one M14 was guaranteeing there will be no agreement with Hizbollah (and Amal).

In other words … THEY started it and hey took it to much higher levels.

And that was the original point of our discussion my friend : )

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May 9th, 2008, 3:56 am

 

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