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Lebanon: Hizbollah’s Weapons Turn Inward
Lebanon: Hizbollah’s Weapons Turn Inward
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Arab Protests: A Wicked Dance Between Rulers and Subjects
Arab Protests: A Wicked Dance Between Rulers and Subjects

Lebanon: Hizbollah’s Weapons Turn Inward

Hizbollah’s takeover of much of West Beirut began as a cost-of-living strike on 7 May 2008. Yet the course of events, their speed and ultimately violent turn exposed the true stakes.

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I. Overview


Hizbollah’s takeover of much of West Beirut began as a cost-of-living strike on 7 May 2008. Yet the course of events, their speed and ultimately violent turn exposed the true stakes. For almost four years, Lebanon has been in a crisis alternatively revolving around the government’s composition, its program, the international tribunal investigating Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination, the choice of a new president and the electoral law. All attempts at peaceful resolution having failed, it has reverted, more dangerously than ever, to its origins: an existential struggle over Hizbollah’s arms. The government’s 14 May decision to reverse the measures – removal of the airport security chief and questioning Hizbollah’s parallel telephone system, a key part of its military apparatus, precipitated the crisis – is welcome as is the Arab League-mediated solu­tion. The onus is now on all Lebanese parties to agree a package deal that breaks the political logjam and restricts how Hizbollah can use its military strength without disarming it for now.

No party can truly win in this increasingly volatile lose-lose confrontation. Hizbollah clearly prevailed in the military showdown, demonstrating its ability to overrun any opponent. Politically, however, the balance sheet is far different. Outside its own constituency, it is seen more than ever as a Shiite militia brutally defending its parochial interests rather than those of a self-proclaimed national resistance. The blatantly confessional aspect of the struggle has deepened the sectarian divide, something the Shiite movement long sought to avoid. Hizbollah’s principal Christian ally, General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, appears deeply embarrassed. Although Lebanon’s intense polarisation might enable him to retain most of his followers in the short term, over time his alliance with Hizbollah will become ever more difficult to justify. The government has remained in place and will be able to continue rallying domestic and international support.

But the principal Sunni party, Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement, has equal reason to worry. The March 14 coalition was forced to back down and revoke its controversial measures. The Sunni community is bewildered, stunned by its inability to resist Hizbollah’s three-day takeover and angry at a leadership accused of letting it down. Pressure on the heads of the Future Movement to bolster its military capacity will grow; simultaneously, some militants will be drawn to more radical, possibly jihadi movements. Its other allies, notably Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, appear demoralised and defeated. The army, too, has been dam­aged, unable to restrain the opposition and harshly criticised by the ruling March 14 coalition as well as many ordinary Sunnis. The risks of an escalating sectarian conflict are real and dangerous.

By withdrawing its decisions, the government has helped calm the situation. But a threshold has been crossed, and it will be very hard to turn back the clock. To minimise the risks of a more dangerous conflagration, renewed efforts pursuant to the Arab League agreement are needed to settle on a new president and national unity government that accepts for now Hizbollah’s armed status while strictly constraining the ways in which its weapons can be used. In the longer term, stability will require that third parties cease using Lebanon as the arena for their fierce regional and international competition and, just as importantly, that Lebanese political leaders cease enabling such costly interference.

Beirut/Brussels, 15 May 2008

Arab Protests: A Wicked Dance Between Rulers and Subjects

Originally published in Valdai Club

A new wave of popular protests has jolted an already deeply unsettled Arab world. Nine years ago, uprisings across the region signalled a rejection of corrupt autocratic rule that failed to deliver jobs, basic services and reliable infrastructure. Yet regime repression and the protests’ lack of organisation, leadership and unified vision thwarted hopes of a new order. As suddenly as the uprisings erupted, as quickly they descended into violence. What followed was either brutal civil war or regime retrenchment. Tunisia stands as the sole, still fragile, exception.

The past year’s uprisings shook countries – Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon – that their predecessors had passed by, showing a continuity in roots and purpose. They have in common their anti-establishment sentiment and anger at elites incapable of meeting citizens’ basic needs. But each has its own internal focus and dynamic.

In Algeria, people converged on urban squares when an aging and ailing president announced he would pursue a fifth term in office. In a move to prevent a popular movement from bringing down not just the leader but the entire regime, the military stepped in, replacing the president, targeting some particularly corrupt figures in his entourage, appointing an interim government and organising presidential elections. The protesters have rejected such moves as insufficient, and many have stayed in the street, calling for a more systemic overhaul.

Even if things calm down in these countries, the basic drivers for mass uprisings remain.

In Iraq, popular grievances, on display almost as an annual ritual in the past few years, burst out into the open in early October following the demotion of a popular special-forces general, a hero of the fight against the Islamic State. The streets in predominantly Shiite areas filled with people calling for a corrupt and inept government to go. They met with success – the prime minister and his cabinet resigned – but also with a violent response from security forces and paramilitary groups, which killed hundreds. Yet the protests have continued, squeezed by tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which are turning Iraq into a battleground for their own dispute.

In Lebanon, a tax on WhatsApp use triggered a storm of protests that soon targeted the entire ruling elite for having brought the country to the edge of financial ruin. As in Iraq, the demonstrations’ tenor has been non-sectarian – a breath of fresh air in two countries where sectarian politics have dominated so long and done so much damage. In Lebanon, politicians have openly acknowledged their own role in precipitating their country’s financial implosion, but have resisted stepping aside. In a way, and incongruously, they have been enabled by the protesters themselves, who like elsewhere in the region have failed to put forward an alternative vision, a leadership, organisation or a plan of action.

Even if things calm down in these countries, the basic drivers for mass uprisings remain. They may even have worsened as a result of the violence that has already rained down. Yet, while the people in the squares may have been intimidated to retreat in some instances, their threshold for pain may be rising, along with their anger. This wicked dance between rulers and subjects is likely to determine the region’s shape for years to come.