What’s driving Lebanon’s crisis?

May 16, 2008

Armed clashes between the Shiite militia and political party Hezbollah and pro-government forces in Lebanon left up to 82 people dead and raised fears of a renewal of the civil war that devastated the country between 1975 and 1991.

Lebanon has been in political crisis since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. In the aftermath, Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon, where Syria had established bases for nearly three decades.

In July 2006, Israel, backed by the U.S., launched a war on Lebanon to try and crush Hezbollah, but was defeated militarily. Since then, the U.S. and its Arab allies have pushed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to try to disarm Hezbollah, which pulled its ministers and allies from the coalition government in late 2006 and launched a mass opposition movement.

The current crisis eased when the government decided May 15 to rescind its demand that Hezbollah surrender its communications network. But the political stalemate shows no sign of resolution.

Rania Masri is a Lebanese-American writer and antiwar activist currently living in Beirut. She spoke to Lee Sustar on the crisis in Lebanon today.

THE FIGHTING in Lebanon was portrayed in the Western media as an attempted coup by Hezbollah. What's the reality?

THAT IS completely not the case.

There was a strike set for Wednesday, May 7. On May 6, the Lebanese government decided two things. One, that Hezbollah's communications network, basically, its land-line network, needs to be dismantled--and is illegal. It ordered the Lebanese Army to take charge of dismantling it and apprehend those in charge of setting up the network. It also declared that a military officer in charge of the security of the airport needs to be removed from office.

By demanding the dismantling of the communications network, the government would be removing the main defense network for Hezbollah. Even the Israeli government, in its report examining the July 2006 war, declared that if it had not been for the secure communications networks of Hezbollah, it would have been able to infiltrate the communications, and Hezbollah would not have been able to achieve a military victory.

Hezbollah supporters look on as Lebanese army soldiers clear roadblocks along the highway leading to Beirut's airport.
Hezbollah supporters look on as Lebanese army soldiers clear roadblocks along the highway leading to Beirut's airport. (Patrick Baz | AFP)

Every time Hezbollah's communication network has been infiltrated--specifically when Hezbollah used wireless networks (such as cell phones)--Hezbollah men were targeted and killed by Israeli military forces.

By demanding the dismantling of the communications network, the government would be opening avenues for the Israelis and for other agents to assassinate the Hezbollah leadership. Clearly, this would not have been acceptable to Hezbollah in any way, shape or form.

The other aspect was the removal of the Lebanese military officer who was in charge of security at the airport. The reason given by the Lebanese government is allegedly that Hezbollah has cameras placed in the airport. But anyone familiar with the terrain of Beirut knows that you don't need cameras to monitor the airport--it's surrounded by tall buildings.

This raises two questions. One, why is the Lebanese government nervous about any monitoring by opposition figures of the airport, and two, why did the Lebanese government remove, without trial or an opportunity for defense, the military officer in charge of airport security?

What else to read

For regular news, commentary and voices from on the ground, see the Electronic Lebanon Web site.

The Middle East Research and Information Project has produced a good primer on Hezbollah by Lara Deeb. For a summary of the history of Lebanon and U.S. intervention, see Stephen Zunes' "The United States and Lebanon: A Meddlesome History."

Toufic Haddad's "Birth pangs of a new Middle East," published in the International Socialist Review, sets out the backdrop of the 2006 Israeli war and analyzes its consequences. For an analysis of the political conflicts that followed the war, see the ISR's interview with Gilbert Achcar, "Lebanon and the Middle East crisis."

These are two very important questions. They feed into [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah's statement on May 8, in which he declared that by removing this particular military officer, particularly without trial, and by raising the fracas about cameras operated by Hezbollah, clearly, the Lebanese government would be working to push the airport toward being an even greater espionage location for the CIA, FBI and other foreign government agencies that are aligned with the Lebanese government.

Both of these government decrees were rejected by Hezbollah, particularly the land-line decree. It was regarded by certain journalists and analysts as a declaration of war on Hezbollah. And Hezbollah retaliated on May 8, first with Nasrallah's speech, then through a military conquest of certain areas of Beirut, particularly strongholds of the Hariri government.

But in no way, from that time until now, has any member of the opposition stated that they actually want a coup or partial coup. All they demanded is that these two decrees be withdrawn, and that the government get back to the negotiating table.

We really can't call this a coup, an attempted coup or even a partial coup. In any case, the U.S. and the Western media have no legitimacy to condemn coups in some countries, and to support them in others.

This U.S. government, supported by the New York Times and the Washington Post, continues to look at the Lebanese government as democratic, when according to the Times, literally half the Lebanese population took to the streets to demand the resignation of the government. The U.S. government and the corporate media have lost their legitimacy to condemn any coup d'etat in Lebanon.

WHAT WERE the demands of the May 7 strike?

WE HAVE unions in Lebanon that are run by political parties. There were certain unions, more closely aligned with the opposition, that had called for a national labor strike, particularly because of the very high living expenses in Lebanon, and because of their request for a significant increase in the minimum wage, which the government had increased only marginally.

The minimum wage remains below that stipulated by the United Nations Development Program, and as defined by the Lebanese government's own economic standards.

For example, for a family of four in Beirut to cover just their basic needs, they need a minimum of $1,500 per month. Outside of Beirut, a family needs $1,000 per month. But the minimum wage is just a few hundred dollars per month. You simply cannot make ends meet. It doesn't work.

The government didn't respond to the demands of unions and workers who protested. Furthermore, as a slap to the strikers, that same morning, the government actually increased the price of fuel. So what kind of response did the government expect?

The strike took shape in two ways. People chose not to go to work, which is what I did and what the strike organizers called for. There was also supposed to be a march, which was unilaterally canceled by the unions that called the strike. Then there were street closures through tire burnings and the like, carried out not by unions, but by members of opposition political parties.

In all this, it's important to recognize that we don't have a viable left in Lebanon--no viable economic platform being presented by anyone across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, when we examine what's happened in the last two weeks, we see workers disempowered and disenfranchised on both sides of the political spectrum. They are particularly being taken advantage of by the government.

As somebody who believes quite strongly in economic justice, it's sad to examine the way the Western and even the Lebanese media have been talking about this crisis. There isn't enough attention given to the economic issues--to the increasing level of poverty in Lebanon and the rise in the cost of living.

All the while, we have a trade minister who believes that the solution to increased levels of poverty is greater liberalization and further opening of markets in Lebanon, contrary to what any model around the world would show.

IS THE situation for workers the same across the country's sectarian divides?

YOU WILL find the poor across all sects in Lebanon. Most particularly, you will find the poor taken advantage of by the very political forces in Lebanon that are most closely aligned with the United States.

I'll give you an example. A reporter friend of mine was in the North a few days ago amid one of the most heated battles between the pro-government forces and the opposition. He saw a 17-year-old boy being escorted, in handcuffs, by the Lebanese Army back to his family. He asked them what was going on.

They told him that a day earlier, members of the Future Movement of Saad Hariri--Rafik Hariri's son--had given the youth $200 and some ammunition and a weapon, and told him to go down to Beirut and fight. He had no training, and no motivation other than the $200 in his back pocket. He had no ideological backing--no understanding of the situation whatsoever.

In Beirut, he confronted extraordinarily well-trained Hezbollah fighters. He surrendered, recognizing that there's no way he can win this battle. Hezbollah took him, unharmed, to the Lebanese Army, which sent him back to his family.

We have had so many of these cases. The U.S. allies in Lebanon, the billionaires, are paying measly amounts of money to get youngsters to serve as their mercenaries.

On the other front, we have the U.S. allies in Lebanon being supported by right wing, ultra-fundamentalist religious elements with close ties to al-Qaeda. It is these groups that have committed the most outrageous and horrendous massacres, again in the North.

Then we have the other allies of the U.S. government. These include [Druze leader] Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party--it's a disgrace that he continues to call his party by that name--who also have literally tortured members of the opposition in Mount Lebanon.

We do have poor people across the sectarian divide in Lebanon. Yet since the creation of the state, there has been an effort to teach Lebanese people that what divides us is our sects, rather than to give class consciousness about the economic divide. We need to be united along economic lines, rather than be divided along sectarian lines.

WHAT IS Hezbollah's economic program?

THE PROBLEM is that Hezbollah is aligned in the opposition with the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party under the leadership of Gen. Michel Aoun. His economic program is to the right of the government's. He believes in neoliberalism, in privatization. His only positive claim is that he is against corruption.

When I asked Hezbollah members about their economic platform, they told me that they have been working on it for months, but aren't ready to disclose it.

Hezbollah doesn't have a pro-union history. But it does have a history of support for the poor, based on what it has done institutionally in the South. It has been able to build a very effective social network.

But Hezbollah doesn't support building institutions that can replace it. Once you build up a strong labor union, you are building up a democratic force that could serve to fight against you politically, or replace your decision-making role.

So Hezbollah is not pro-union. But they are pro-poor people. They are not in favor of the privatization of electricity or water, for example. But they have not come out with an economic program, out of fear that it would cause a division with their allies.

The only ones in the country who have an economic platform are the Lebanese Communist Party--and other smaller left-wing parties, all of whom have aligned themselves quite strongly with the opposition.

So, unfortunately, the economy is put on the back burner. The argument is, "let's solve the political crisis first, then we can discuss the economy."

THE U.S. complains about Syria's and Iran's support of Hezbollah. Is this accurate?

SYRIA AND Iran are, in many ways, supporters of Hezbollah and other parties in the opposition, just like Saudi Arabia is a close ally of Hariri's movement and other militias in Lebanon.

We have a lot of external actors, and we have many political analysts in Lebanon who say that it is these external factors which are at play in the country, with internal dynamics playing very little role.

Lebanon as a nation has yet to build a sense of national identity. We are a bunch of religious sects and affiliations, yoked together in this country and labeled as Lebanese. So long as we have sectarian governments, a system given to us by the French and supported by numerous European leaders, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, we will continue to have divisions, chaos and schizophrenia in our identity as Lebanese.

WHAT KIND of activism is the secular left involved in?

LET ME give you an example.

There was a massacre in the North committed by supporters of the government--the men George Bush and Condoleezza Rice support. These people attacked an office of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a Lebanese party aligned with the opposition. They killed 11 men and wounded 7.

It's not so much that they killed them, but that they tortured them. They desecrated their bodies, humiliated them, and used racist and sectarian language against them. They took pictures of all this and circulated videos on YouTube, and this has been going around the country for the past few days.

It's one thing to kill in a crossfire. It's quite another thing to drag unarmed men into the streets, beat them to a pulp, take pictures and feel a sense of pride. It's quite disgusting.

What we are planning to do is have an event in Beirut that brings up issues of law, morality and religious violations, and condemn these kinds of atrocities. We're doing this, rather than simply go into the streets and hold a candle and say, "No to war, yes to peace," which is quite superficial and dismisses the political differences among the factions. That's something we don't want to do.

Rather, we're raising the flag and talking about the importance of respecting humanity, morality and dignity, even in the context of warfare, amid these guns.

This is particularly important, because the factions aligned with the U.S. have been complaining that the headquarters of Hariri's Future TV and Future newspaper were closed for a few days. They are raising the alarms about that, while dismissing the massacres and atrocities.

People are being killed on both sides of this conflict. But it has only been U.S. allies in Lebanon who have actually committed slaughter. It has only been allies of the U.S. who have gouged out peoples' eyes and cut open their hearts--committed these kinds of atrocities and taken glee in them. So we are taking to the streets to condemn this.

In this avenue, there is activism. But we cannot say there is really a left in Lebanon. The Communist Party has been so weakened. The word socialism has been torn asunder and taken over by Walid Jumblatt and his goons. Unions are too closely aligned to political parties to be independent. Workers are scattered along the sectarian divide and have yet to develop a real workers' awareness.

So there is so much work to be done by the left to become independent and viable--a left that demands economic justice and a secular form of government, and doesn't simply align itself so closely with the opposition as to become swallowed up by the language of Hezbollah.

No matter how powerful and how legitimate, Hezbollah is within a national resistance movement. They are not the left, and they are not calling for a secular government--and we have yet to see if they would be working for the kind of economic justice we envision.

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