“This country is like a cake. On the top it is cream. Underneath it is fire.” So a Hezbollah spokesman told me last June, speaking in the shabby Beirut apartment that served as the party’s press office until an avalanche of Israeli ordnance leveled the building, along with the surrounding neighborhood, in the war that flared a few weeks later. Intimated as a bit of finger-wagging local wisdom, the clumsy metaphor seemed hackneyed at the time.
Yet it is true that while Lebanon whets appetites with its gorgeous landscapes, clement weather, energetic people, and wonderful food, trying to consume too much of it tends to bring on heartburn. Just ask the Ottoman Turks, the imperialist French, the US Marine Corps, the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Syrians, or any number of Lebanese would-be overlords. The country’s infernally complex ingredients seem chemically incapable of melding into a digestible dish.
This wedge of Mediterranean littoral may be densely crowded, yet close neighbors manage to live in very different worlds. A Beirut socialite’s calendar this past season might, for instance, have taken in the abundance of pink cheeks daringly displayed at the annual catwalk for fancy lingerie on the ski slopes of Faraya, or the opening at Surface, a chic gallery in Christian East Beirut, of a startling exhibition by two young women artists titled “Erotika.” Another must would have been the funeral of Alia Solh, the eldest daughter of Riad Solh, the first prime minister of Lebanon after it gained independence in 1943. One of five glamorous sisters who married well during the halcyon years before the 1975–1990 civil war, her obsequies, at the Solh mansion in Sunni West Beirut, drew a crush of luminaries from as far afield as New York, Paris, Riyadh, and Rabat, including Walid bin Talal, the billionaire Saudi prince, and Moulay Hisham, a cousin of the Moroccan king known for his liberal views.
Of course, should one not be part of Beirut’s hedonistic and dauntingly branché elite, the calendar might have looked rather different. Bombed out of your cramped walk-up in the Shia southern suburbs during last summer’s war, you may have moved into the sprawling tent city at Riad Solh Square in downtown Beirut. Erected in December by Hezbollah and its allies to shame the “collaborationist” government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora into quitting, the squalid encampment remains defiantly in place. You may have marched in the fervid, self-flagellating Ashura parades that on January 30 commemorated the martyrdom of the Shia hero-figure Hussein, or attended the angry funerals of the more recent Shia “martyrs” who were gunned down—not far from the Solh mansion—by suspected Sunni snipers during sectarian clashes earlier that month. (Or if you were Sunni, you might have joined the equally emotive memorial for two Sunni youths held in May, after they were kidnapped and executed in apparent vengeance.) But perhaps, if you have the misfortune to be one of 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees, you merely sit, jobless and anyhow barred, under Lebanese law, from most decent trades, in a cinderblock shack in one of the country’s archipelago of little Gazas, dreaming of jihad.
It is easy enough to counterpoint the opulence and squalor, hope and despair that remain such close bedfellows here. It is far harder to untangle the network of shifting allegiances that make up the spider’s-web-in-a-kaleidoscope of Lebanese politics. Differences between the eighteen sects that are formally recognized in the Lebanese constitution, which reserves political offices proportionally for representatives of different religious communities, form only part of the puzzle. Other elements include clan loyalties, class, historic alliances, ideological currents, the grievances of refugees from throughout the region, money interests, guns, and foreign intrigue involving everyone from the Vatican to the CIA and Mossad to the rival Shiite seminaries at Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran.
Scholarly attempts to clear this thicket are fraught with risks, starting with the fact that there is scarcely an overarching narrative on which enough Lebanese can agree to establish commonly accepted truths. Rather like in modern Italy, but more so, this is a place where achieving any sort of closure on important national traumas, such as the “Events” of 1975–1990—known to the rest of the world as the civil war—has proved dismayingly elusive. Historical happenings that elsewhere would be simple signposts on a recognized road become instead prisms, used to construct mutually negating paths.
Take the assassination of Riad Solh. Lebanese schoolbooks describe the Sunni leader at the time of Lebanon’s independence from France in 1943 as a national hero. It is true that the National Pact of that year, a founding document of the new nation, owed much to a practical meeting of minds between Solh, by inclination a pan-Arab nationalist, and Bishara Khoury, a Maronite Catholic leader who advocated a more Mediterranean-oriented, Christian-flavored Lebanese republic. Their alliance was institutionalized by the fixing of a 6–5 Christian–Muslim ratio of parliamentary seats, and a division of key powers between a Maronite president (Khoury was the first) and a Sunni prime minister. Other sects, it was understood, would have their share at every rank in government, including the cabinet, under a system known as muhasasa, or apportionment.
That deal brought three decades of uneasy calm and rapidly rising prosperity as Lebanon—an island of relative democratic liberty amid a sea of coup-prone dictatorships—attracted capital and talent from across the region. Yet the ideological seam of Arabism versus Lebanese particularism eventually pulled apart. From the beginning, too, the distribution of powers among Sunnis and Christians chafed what was then the country’s third-largest confessional group, the largely rural and marginalized Shia, for whom the topmost allotted post was speaker of parliament. It also annoyed the fourth-largest sect, the Greek Orthodox. Many were attracted to the quixotic vision of Antoun Saadeh, who founded a radically secular and socialist party that sought to incorporate Lebanon within a Greater Syria, along with Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, and Kuwait.
Following the failure of Saadeh’s comically inept coup plot in 1949, he was tried for treason and shot. As Ghassan Tueni, the debonair, still-prolific, and politically active publisher of the Beirut daily An-Nahar, warned at the time, “They have made of him a great giant, stronger than Saadeh ever was, and have made him a martyr.” Two years later, one of Saadeh’s followers created another martyr by killing Riad Solh in revenge. To this day, members of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (which, ironically, was banned in Syria until last year) regard Saadeh as a hero and Solh as a villain.
Lebanon’s political landscape is thickly littered with such controversial martyr-figures. One of them is Ghassan Tueni’s own son, Gebran, whose car was blown off a mountain road by a powerful bomb in December 2005. Passionately opposed to Syrian interference in Lebanon, Gebran Tueni made a rousing call for national unity before a million-strong rally on March 14, 2005. It was perhaps the most dramatic moment of the so-called Cedar Revolution that convulsed Lebanon that spring, forcing Syria to end its three decade-long “peacekeeping” presence. Yet many Shias prefer to recall that Tueni once described Hezbollah’s followers as mindless sheep.
Similarly, the passing of Pierre Gemayel, a young, right-wing cabinet minister and vocal critic of Syrian influence, who was gunned down on a Beirut street last November, was widely mourned, if only because the ill-fated Gemayel clan of Maronite Catholics has produced more than its share of martyrs. (His uncle was also assassinated.) But in some quarters of Beirut it was said that vengeance had been claimed for Gemayel’s unwise public boast that while Muslims may have the quantity, “we” Christians have the quality.
Such examples may imply that Lebanon’s troubles are simply sectarian. Yet the very precariousness of the balance, with Sunnis, Shias, and Christians each representing around a third of the population, plus memories of the civil war with its 150,000 dead, tend to dampen cross-religious strife. The most vicious political sniping often takes place within sectarian groups. Hezbollah’s sharpest critics are, in fact, dissident Shias. And consider the comments made following Pierre Gemayel’s death by Suleiman Frangieh, the current don of a rival, pro-Syrian Maronite clan. First insinuating that Gemayel was probably murdered by yet another right-wing Maronite party, the Lebanese Forces, Frangieh reportedly jeered at a visit paid by several widows of slain Christian politicians—including Gemayel’s—to the eighty-seven-year-old Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Sfeir. Don’t they have a man among them to send, he jibed, adding that the cleric probably got a hard-on.
Of all the modern martyrs to Lebanese politics, few achieved the stature and scale of influence, either in life or death, of the Sunni millionaire Rafik Hariri. Five times elected prime minister, Hariri stamped a personal style and vision on Lebanese society in the years following the end of the civil war in 1990. His efforts to rebuild the country justly earned him the title of Mr. Lebanon bestowed by Nicholas Blanford, a longtime correspondent in Beirut who has written a brisk portrait of the man’s travails and legacy. The killing of Hariri, along with twenty-two others, in a huge blast on Valentine’s Day 2005, stunned even the drama-inured Lebanese. Shattering fifteen years of relative calm, it provoked a wave of revulsion that was to radically alter the face of the country.
The son of a poor Sunni orange farmer, Hariri won a scholarship to the Arab University in Beirut and eventually, like so many Lebanese, sought his fortune abroad. Canny, hard-working, and disarmingly frank, he cashed in mightily on Saudi Arabia’s 1970s oil boom, building a giant construction firm on a reputation for efficiency that drew him extremely close to the Saudi ruling family. In one oft-cited incident, he is said to have impressed a royal Saudi client by wheeling in jet aircraft engines to quick-dry the cement at one short-order palace. He was to leave to his heirs a globe-spanning business whose assets have been valued conservatively at more than $8 billion.
During the bleakest civil war years, Hariri spent prodigiously on his home country, clearing rubble-strewn roads, sending some 35,000 poor Lebanese students through college, and financing repeated attempts to staunch the bloodletting by brokering hostage releases and talks between rival militias. Finally, in 1989, Hariri’s powerful Saudi patrons cajoled Lebanese politicians to attend a conclave at Taif, a mountain resort near Mecca, and effectively locked them in a room until they succumbed to a deal. The resulting Taif Accord updated the 1943 National Pact, reducing the powers of the Maronite presidency in favor of the Sunni premiership and Shia parliamentary speaker, and allotting parliamentary seats on a 1–1 Muslim–Christian ratio. Wartime militias were to be disbanded, but the principle of muhasasa was maintained.
This was hardly to everyone’s liking. But the deal was backed by Gulf Arab money as well as by Syrian troops occupying the country (who had first entered Lebanon in 1976 to prop up flagging Maronite forces, then lingered until all the rival militias were exhausted); and it was supported by the understanding that Hezbollah would be allowed to continue harassing Israel (whose army had invaded in 1982 to wipe out the PLO, then lingered in occupation of the mostly Shia-populated South). With those advantages, the Taif Accord eventually stuck and Hariri himself became its political godfather, the deal-maker whose cheery persona, deep pockets, and diplomatic savvy held the place together.
First elected as prime minister in 1992, he held the job for most of the next thirteen years. Hariri’s achievements were undeniable. At the civil war’s end, Blanford writes, “the gaunt, pock-marked skeletons of [downtown Beirut’s] once-graceful buildings looked as though they were suffering from some vile stone-eating leprosy.” Ten years later such scars had been all but erased. The gutted city center, incorporated as a real estate development in which Hariri himself was the prime shareholder, had been recreated as a postmodern pastiche of tastefully restored and sparkling new buildings.
This and other big baubles came at a very high cost, not only in money as the national debt soared—from $1.5 billion when Hariri entered office in 1992 to $18 billion six years later—but in political capital as Hariri furiously bargained, compromised, and bribed to keep his detractors at bay. As Blanford quotes one Hariri admirer as saying, “He was a corrupter, rather than corrupt.” Warlords, army officers, and Hariri cronies received choice slices of the pie: they were offered ministries to expand their powers of patronage, or granted lucrative business monopolies. Syrian officials were carefully cultivated with such gifts as choice properties or scholarships for their children. Syria’s infiltration of the police and judiciary went unchecked, as did its arming of loyal Palestinian factions, and its backing of Hezbollah as a useful thorn in Israel’s side.
By most accounts Hariri was unhappy with all this, but worked with the tools at hand. “Some of the people in my cabinet are criminals and should be in jail, but I can’t do anything about it,” he told Augustus Richard Norton, an American professor who has written an admirably concise and balanced primer on Hezbollah. Hariri’s gamble was that with regional peace seeming likely with the Oslo process in the 1990s, a revived Lebanese economy could grow itself out of debt. Healthier revenues would strengthen the historically feeble central government. The combination of reduced international tensions and a more workable Lebanese state would obviate any excuse for Syria to linger, or for Hezbollah to maintain its unique status as an openly armed sectarian militia.
It seemed almost to be working, until the year 2000 brought a series of setbacks. Peace talks between both Israel and Syria and Israel and the Palestinians collapsed. Israel unilaterally withdrew from its “security zone” in southern Lebanon, leaving Hezbollah’s guerrilla fighters to bask in glory. President Hafez al-Assad of Syria, a wily and brutal but patient and predictable operator, died, passing rule to his son Bashar, whose younger circle resented Hariri as too rich, too manipulative, and too friendly with Westerners such as the French president, Jacques Chirac (whose political career Hariri had supported since the 1980s by investing in ailing French companies and helping them secure contracts in Saudi Arabia). Then, when the new administration in Washington took office in 2001, it dismissed Middle Eastern peacemaking as a waste of time, adopting a belligerent tone toward Syria that pushed Damascus into a tighter embrace of Hezbollah and of the party’s primary backer, Iran.
Lebanon’s enforced calm began to look shaky. Out of latent nationalism, or pique at being cut out of spoils, critics of Syrian interference who had been quiescent after Taif began agitating for Syrian withdrawal. With Israel gone, taboos about questioning the need for Hezbollah’s “resistance” militia lifted, even as Syria and Iran began supplying it with thousands of rockets. Syria’s allies in Lebanon, led by President Emile Lahoud, a former general widely disparaged for his perpetual tan and rank loyalty to the Assads, grew increasingly obstructive of Hariri’s growth-oriented policies. The economy slowed, foiling Hariri’s hopes for debt relief even as his public began to blame him for rising prices, heavier taxes, and the widening gulf between rich and poor.
These tensions grew following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. To some, the demise of Saddam’s regime happily augured a similar fate for Syria’s Baathists, or at least a forced retrenchment that could free Lebanon from their clammy hold. Many of Hariri’s political allies began, quietly, to align with America and with France, which saw Lebanon, with its Francophone traditions, as both a natural zone of influence and a means for coordinating policies with America following France’s break over Iraq. Lebanon became one of the few places in the Middle East where the Bush administration’s promotion of a “freedom agenda” gained wide public traction.
But other Lebanese factions, equally nationalist in their own eyes, drew starkly opposite lessons from the fall of Baghdad. Fused with pan-Arabist and Islamist versions of history, America’s military intrusion onto Arab-Muslim soil furnished perfect evidence of a continued Western plot—of which Israel had already formed one chapter—aimed at weakening and exploiting the region. The imperative was to stop this from happening, by checking America’s ambitions in Iraq, by supporting Syria, which had always posed as a bastion of Arabism, by retaining a deterrent against Israel, and by punishing would-be collaborators.
By late 2004, a confrontation seemed imminent. In early September France and America, perceiving a chance to prise Lebanon out of Syria’s sphere, secured a Security Council resolution that demanded both the disarming of Hezbollah and the prompt holding of presidential elections to replace the unctuous Lahoud. Suspecting Hariri of having secretly lobbied for the resolution, Bashar al-Assad had called him to Damascus several days before the resolution was adopted and, a tearful Hariri told friends, threatened to “break Lebanon over his head” if he obstructed Lahoud’s return to office. Rallying allies in Beirut, Syria forced a constitutional amendment through the parliament to extend Lahoud’s term by three years, which passed the day after the UN resolution was adopted. Some MPs later explained that they, too, had received blunt threats. A further warning came in the form of a car bomb that badly injured Marwan Hammade, a Druze cabinet minister and close friend of Hariri’s.
Shaken, Hariri voted reluctantly for Lahoud’s extension in office. But soon after, finding Syria’s allies blocking him at every turn, he resigned. By late 2004 Hariri found himself increasingly pulled toward outright opposition to Syria. With elections looming in the spring of 2005, his still-powerful political machine, bolstered by Western backing and amplified by his generous bankrolling of the press, turned its energy toward forging a broad alliance uniting Syria’s increasingly numerous and outspoken enemies. In January 2005, Hariri told Syria’s proconsul in Lebanon, General Rustum Ghazale, that he would choose his own candidates, rather than accepting Syrian nominations as in the past.
His death by a car bomb came a month later. Rather than thwarting the opposition alliance, the spectacular assassination speeded its success, uniting Hariri’s Sunni constituency in outrage with the traditionally anti-Syrian Christians. Within a month, huge street demonstrations had shamed the pro-Syrian cabinet into resigning. Within another month, Syria had been forced to withdraw the last of its troops. Elections in the summer of 2005 produced a sweeping win for the Hariri machine, led now by his son Saad, in alliance with large Druze and Christian blocs. The cabinet it eventually formed, with Fouad Siniora, an economist and long-time Hariri henchman, as prime minister, comprised a careful balance, including representatives of Hezbollah and even associates of the widely loathed president.
By the end of that summer, the Syrian-installed heads of Lebanon’s police and intelligence branches languished in prison, having been fingered by an ongoing UN probe into the Hariri assassination. For the first time in Lebanese memory, it looked as if justice might actually be served for a political crime. More than that, the ever-so-elusive hope of a regenerated, confessionally equitable, and truly independent Lebanon seemed suddenly possible.
Yet even at this moment of apparent triumph, dangerous cracks were appearing. Hariri’s political heirs, now known as the March 14th alliance, sorely lacked a leader of his caliber. In haste to complete Syria’s exclusion, they dismissed calls for electoral reform, running the vote under a Syrian-tailored system that Christians complained diluted their voice. They also alienated supporters by allying tactically with pro-Syrian Hezbollah, simply in order to thwart an emergent Christian block, known as the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which had formed around the figure of General Michel Aoun.
As commander of the rump national army toward the end of the civil war in the 1980s, Aoun had mounted a reckless challenge to Syria’s then-tightening grip. The messy finale of his defeat, in 1990, saw some of the most destructive fighting of the war. Aoun fled into exile in France, returning, like Napoleon from Elba, during the spring of 2005. Exploiting his aura of resistance to Syria, as well as widespread suspicion among Christians of the Hariri camp, Aoun quickly gained a broad base of Christian support.
Underestimating his strength, the March 14th group declined to bring Aoun into the coalition. Even after his FPM won an estimated 60 percent of the Christian vote, Aoun’s insistence on his “right” to a hefty quota of cabinet seats pushed the Hariri coalition to keep him at arm’s length. Aoun now lost no opportunity to attack the government. He even swore to block moves to unseat President Lahoud, unless he were guaranteed the post for himself.
More immediately disturbing, March 14th leaders continued to be stalked by sporadic murder attempts. Car bombs killed Samir Kassir, a popular writer, and George Hawi, a former Communist Party leader, in June 2005. Minister of Defense Elias Murr survived another in July, and May Chidiac, a prominent television anchor, another in September. Gebran Tueni and Pierre Gemayel were not so lucky. All, incidentally, were Christians, Gemayel the son of a former Maronite president. Periodic pipe-bombings of Christian neighborhoods also served to keep tensions high.
Meanwhile, the UN investigation into Hariri’s death began to alarm Syria, as progress reports noted the Assad regime’s clear motive for doing away with Mr. Lebanon, and cited “converging evidence” of high-level complicity between Syrian intelligence officers, their Lebanese counterparts, and a network of radical Islamists known to have ties with Syria. At the request of the Lebanese government, the probe was extended to include later assassinations, with the clear implication that these were all related to a central purpose, the most obvious one being to stop Lebanon slipping out of Syria’s orbit.
But the hardest crack to repair, and the easiest for Syria to exploit, grew out of Hezbollah, and particularly the party’s adamant insistence on retaining its growing stock of arms. The Security Council demanded disarmament of all “militias,” and most Lebanese would have liked to see Hezbollah tamed. But in a speech in May 2005 the party’s soft-spoken and charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, ominously declared that he would “cut off any hand that reaches out to our weapons.”
The Shia party’s fierce attachment to the notion of perpetual “resistance” sprang partly from its origins in the darkest years of the civil war, when the impoverished Shia suffered more than other sects both because they had no militia, at first, to protect them, and also because they happened to lie in the path of Israel’s frequent forays into South Lebanon. There was a strong ideological element, too, as Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s icy second-in-command and chief intellectual, makes clear in Hizbullah: The Story from Within, his own history of the group.
Qassem exalts the culture of martyrdom in almost fetishistic terms, citing a willingness to die as the ultimate weapon of the weak against the strong. Resistance to Israeli and Western plots to control the region, he declares, should be consecrated as “the foundation block for a society of forbearance that prides itself on its achievements and sacrifices, strengthening such resistance further and responding to it.”
This is, in fact, the kind of Spartan society that Hezbollah has created in the zones under its control, which include large swathes of southern Lebanon, the eastern Bekaa Valley, and Beirut’s densely populated southern suburbs. Built around a tight network of party-provided services, including television and radio, schools, hospitals, orphanages, and other charities, it is an almost exclusively Shia world. The only element that provides wider appeal, for fellow Arabs and Muslims, is Hezbollah’s determination to fight Israel to the bitter end. Hence, again, the attachment to arms, and the impetus to continue attacking Israel even after its abandonment of Lebanese territory.
It is for this reason, too, that Iran remains so closely linked to the protégé that it helped create in the 1980s. As a revolutionary regime that seeks to universalize its ideology, Shia Iran has used Hezbollah’s appeal as a successful fighting force to enhance its own legitimacy among Sunnis, who make up 85 percent of the world’s Muslims. With the government in Tehran apparently captured by hard-line ideologues following the election victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August 2005, and with Iran facing growing hostility from the West, the usefulness of Hezbollah has only grown.
The facts that Iran and Syria have been allies since the early 1980s and that both supply Hezbollah with arms are obvious reasons for the group to align itself, in local Lebanese politics, with pro-Syrian forces. But there is a broader rationale, as Qassem argues. Lebanon can never be neutral, he asserts. Its geography and politics impose two alternatives, allegiance either to Syria or to Israel. “It is natural of us to choose the former,” he concludes.
Other Lebanese would dispute this Manichaean worldview. But as events were to make clear, Hezbollah had yet another reason to be touchy about its weapons. The militia had accumulated such a vast arsenal of rockets and sophisticated anti-tank gear, and built such an elaborate infrastructure of tunnels, shelters, and concealed positions, that it would, its leaders thought, have been a shame not to test these against the Zionist enemy.
Hezbollah could be confident that the Lebanese army, many of whose officers and men were in any case sympathetic to the party, was in no position to take on its better-armed, -trained and -motivated guerrillas. But Hezbollah, surprised by the anti-Syrian passion ignited by Hariri’s killing, began to look politically and even culturally isolated. To other Lebanese, the aura of pride that surrounded the party after Israel’s cut-and-run departure back in 2000 had worn off. Even among those who still identified Lebanon’s fate with Syria’s, there were many, especially Sunni Muslims, who questioned whether Hezbollah was simply a pawn in a bigger game between America and Iran, whose sacrifice would hurt the Lebanese.
But as pressure gathered to find some sort of compromise, with some suggesting the militia be redesignated a part of the army, Hezbollah played a political trump card. In February 2006 it forged a pact with General Aoun and his FPM. This marriage of convenience made even many of the general’s own supporters gasp. Here, suddenly, was the loudest champion of Lebanon’s independence, and a Christian to boot, joining forces with an Islamist ally of Syria and Iran. But the deal has proved oddly resilient, bolstered, grumble many Lebanese, chiefly by Hezbollah’s support for Aoun’s presidential ambitions in the upcoming presidential elections this fall.
It survived even last summer’s war. Despite the fact that Hezbollah provoked the fighting with a raid that captured two Israeli soldiers, Israel’s wildly disproportionate revenge rallied even many Christians to the party’s defense. By the war’s end, Prime Minister Siniora’s government, which could do little more than appeal to its Western friends to intervene, and whose calls were ignored by a Bush administration intent on having Hezbollah clobbered, was seen by many Lebanese, and not just by Shias who bore the brunt of the destruction, as virtually a collaborationist regime. Hezbollah’s forces were, of course, badly mauled in the war, and forced by the peace to withdraw from Israel’s border. But the party had, in effect, relegitimized its guerrilla force, and subsequently gained points by mounting far more effective efforts at reconstruction than the state.
The intervening months have reinforced a seemingly intractable polarization between two powerful factions, each claiming to represent the will of the people. On one side stands the Western-backed Siniora government, holding most of the institutions of state and a slim parliamentary majority. On the other is the Hezbollah-led opposition, grouping a range of pro-Syrian parties with General Aoun’s movement and President Lahoud. In sectarian terms, the division splits Christian Lebanon in half, and aligns the vast majority of Sunnis and Druze (who make up 5 percent of the population) against the vast majority of Shias.
Since November 2006, the opposition has denied the legitimacy of the Siniora government, on the grounds that the resignation of all the Shia members of Siniora’s cabinet renders it in breach of muhasasa. The Shia speaker of parliament has refused to summon the legislature until such time as Siniora creates a “national unity” cabinet giving the opposition enough seats to veto legislation. This has blocked movement on key issues, most notably Lebanon’s ratification of a UN plan to set up an international tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri and other assassinations. The government charges that this blocking is precisely Syria’s objective; it dismisses the “national unity” idea as simply another way to achieve the same goal. This has blocked movement on issues ranging from electoral reform to improving conditions for Palestinian refugees. It was the Lebanese parliament’s inability to ratify UN plans to create an international tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri assassination that led to the Security Council’s resolution on May 30, ordering the court to be set up. Stopping the tribunal is, in fact, the main aim of Syria and its proxies, the March 14th movement contends.
During the winter, Hezbollah and its allies sought to force a way through this logjam by means of mass protests. Highly organized as always, the party set up a tent city in front of Siniora’s office. But when a day of strikes and civil disobedience in January quickly degenerated into ugly sectarian clashes, the opposition relented. Siniora’s government has, in fact, proved tougher than its opponents expected. By most accounts it has actually won defectors, particularly from the Aoun camp, as ordinary Lebanese became weary of the uncertainty that now risks wrecking yet another summer tourist season. Yet neither side is strong enough to impose its will.
With President Lahoud’s mandate expiring in the fall, Lebanese fear a constitutional vacuum, and perhaps even an eruption of general strife, unless a compromise candidate is found. Under the Lebanese system, presidents are chosen by parliament, not through a general election, and must be Maronite Christians. General Aoun could choose to jump camps, in the hope of being backed by the March 14th “pro Democracy” movement. Such a move would leave Hezbollah dangerously isolated. But the ruling group, and indeed many ordinary Lebanese, are wary of the general’s maverick tendencies. Settling on an alternative may prove very tricky.
It was in this grim setting that the latest dramatic events erupted, this time in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared near Tripoli on Lebanon’s northern border with Syria, where fighting in late May between the Lebanese army and a radical Sunni cult in the camp killed scores and wounded hundreds. The flare-up, the bloodiest internal strife since the civil war, was not unexpected. As Bernard Rougier points out in Everyday Jihad, his thorough and disturbing account of the spread of Salafist jihadism among Lebanon’s persecuted Palestinians, the squalid camps are a perfect breeding ground for radical ideas.
Control of the country’s twelve camps was once in the hands of the PLO. After the forced departure of Yasser Arafat in 1984, most fell under the sway of Syrian military intelligence, which Rougier asserts did much to fragment them politically and isolate them economically by sponsoring Lebanese laws that, among other things, ban Palestinians from owning property or holding white-collar jobs. Once much admired, the educational standard of the camps collapsed. As secular parties failed to bring improvements to their lives, or to their prospects for return to Palestine, youths abandoned them in favor of the more desperate, more encompassing, and currently more telegenic ideal of a pan-Islamic jihad.
Syria’s withdrawal in 2005 created a dangerous security vacuum in the camps, which are barred to Lebanese forces under a 1969 agreement. Many Lebanese suspect that Syria, which is known to have sponsored jihadists in Iraq, continued to fund and arm operatives, setting them loose as saboteurs with the long-term aim of reasserting their own role as Lebanon’s power broker. But with the global spread of jihadism, it was perhaps natural that foreign militants would gravitate toward Lebanon’s camps as a haven and recruiting ground.
The emergence of the jihadist organization Fatah al-Islam at the Nahr al-Bared camp appears to have resulted from a mix of Syrian plotting and internal factors. Its leader arrived in Lebanon last year, armed with plenty of cash, after being released from a Syrian jail. Most of his several hundred followers came not from the camp but from Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Syria, and elsewhere, often via the jihad-field of Iraq, yet another consequence of the Iraq war. Camp residents resented the intrusion and largely disliked the newcomers’ rigid puritanism, but according to many accounts, they also admired the fighters for their zeal and experience fighting in Iraq.
It was a matter of time before the mix of Lebanon’s own tense internal situation and such pockets of jihadism would explode. At the time of writing it was not clear if the battle would strengthen or weaken the Siniora government. Initially it united Lebanese, including Hezbollah, which may agree with the Salafists’ aim of liberating Palestine but knows they regard Shias as heretics, and prefers itself to “own” the Palestinian issue in Lebanon.
But as civilian casualties rose, so did the chorus of counteraccusations between Lebanese factions. Hezbollah announced its opposition to the army raiding the camp, raising suspicions that it wanted neither to see the precedent of a militia being disarmed, nor to see the state gaining in stature. The government would have liked to exert its role as the legitimate defender of Lebanon, but with many civilians still trapped in the camp, the likelihood of a bloodbath raises the prospect of unrest spreading to other Palestinian camps. The only thing clear about this new conundrum, now piled atop so many others, was that for all its own fractious internal squabbles, Lebanon ultimately remains hostage to the regional ur-conflict over Palestine.
—May 31, 2007
‘Lebanon’s Agony’ September 27, 2007