On the boil

Print edition : February 23, 2007

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora (left) and French President Jacques Chirac at a news conference at the International Conference for Support to Lebanon in Paris on January 25.-CHARLES PLATIAU/REUTERS Prime Minister Fouad Siniora (left) and French President Jacques Chirac at a news conference at the International Conference for Support to Lebanon in Paris on January 25.

Anti-government protesters and supporters of the Prime Minister head for a showdown in what could be Lebanon's worst civil unrest yet.

EVENTS in the last week of January on the streets of Beirut could be a dark portent. Already, many ordinary Lebanese have become despondent as the country hurtles to the brink of yet another full-fledged sectarian war. A nationwide strike called by the Opposition degenerated into violence, claiming the lives of 10 people and injuring hundreds more. Property worth millions of dollars was destroyed in the capital, Beirut, alone. Shia and Sunni students exchanged fire on the Beirut Arab University campus, leading to three deaths. As the funerals of the fallen took place, calls for revenge became louder.

Beirut bore the brunt of the last Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975-90. Since then it has risen virtually from the rubble and become a business and tourism hub for the region. But for the last two years, the country has been lurching from crisis to crisis. The first serious incident was the mysterious assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. He had fallen out with the Syrian government and cast his lot with the pro-American bloc. The multimillionaire Sunni politician was also close to the Saudi monarchy. The West, along with the major Sunni, Christian and Druze parties, rushed to judgment and blamed the Syrian government for the assassination. In the so-called "Cedar Revolution" that followed, the pro-Syrian government was ousted by protests concentrated in Beirut. Syrian forces, which had kept the peace in Lebanon for a decade and a half, withdrew in the face of domestic and international pressure.

In the elections held that year, a coalition of the Sunni, Christian and Druze parties, supported by the West, got the largest number of seats. The results were not a true reflection of the popular will of the people as seats in the Lebanese Parliament are allocated on the basis of sects and religion. The antiquated Constitution still allots the majority of the seats to Christians and Sunnis, though the majority of the population in Lebanon today is Shia, estimated at between 30 and 40 per cent. Hizbollah (the party of god), along with the smaller Amal Party, retains the overwhelming support of Shias.

The Lebanese people seemed to have set aside their sectarian and political differences when Hizbollah and its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, were toasted all over Lebanon and the Arab world for stopping the Israeli military juggernaut in the conflict in July last year, something that no Arab state had been able to accomplish so far. However, serious differences among the major political parties surfaced yet again, even before the last Israeli soldier left Lebanon. The political crisis worsened when Hizbollah and a few other parties withdrew their Ministers from the coalition government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Hizbollah demanded a reallocation of portfolios and more representation for those opposed to the pro-American policies of the government. The Prime Minister and his supporters from the major Sunni party and a section of the Christian and Druze minorities refused to countenance the demands. Shia representation in government, is minimal, and they remain the underclass; all the plum government posts and the majority of the seats in Parliament are with the alliance of pro-Western Sunni and Christian parties.

The main grouse of Hizbollah and other Opposition groups was that the Lebanese government was complicit in the American-Israeli plan to redraw the political map of West Asia. Nasrallah alleged that Siniora was conspiring against his party when the United States gave Israel the green signal to launch an all-out attack against Lebanon. During the last civil war, many Lebanese parties worked openly with the Israelis. The massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila was a joint enterprise of the Israeli Army and Lebanese Phalangist forces.

Many conservative Arab governments also seemed to have given their tacit support for the initial Israeli military response last year. The Saudi Arabian government criticised Hizbollah for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers from the disputed Shebaa farms region, indirectly blaming it for the military escalation. Israel used the incident as an excuse to launch an attack, and the cluster bombs and other lethal ammunition it used were all provided by Washington.

"We redeem you with our blood" says the writing on the poster of Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah as his supporters carry the coffin of a man killed in clashes with government supporters in Beirut in January.-HUSSEIN MALLA/AP

After the Israeli withdrawal, Hizbollah and its allies, including the Communists and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by Gen. Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese Army chief, demanded that the pro-American government either share power equitably or resign. Siniora offered to increase slightly the number of Cabinet posts for the Opposition. But the Opposition wanted an effective say in the running of the government and not symbolic representation. Importantly, it wanted to reorient Lebanese foreign policy and halt the pro-Western drift.

Since November 2006, the Opposition has been holding massive protests in Beirut, and on several occasions the crowds numbered over a million. The Western media have not been giving the rallies the kind of coverage they accorded to the "Cedar revolution", when the well-attired middle class took to the streets demanding the ouster of the pro-Syrian government.

In the third week of January, the Opposition gave Siniora an ultimatum to resign. However, with the support of the West and neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia, the Prime Minister is clinging on to power. A day after Beirut erupted in flames, a generous aid package totalling $7.6 billion was announced at the Paris III Conference presided over by French President Jacques Chirac. Lebanon's current debt stands at $40 billion.

The government's seeming reluctance to support wholeheartedly the reconstruction effort has further fuelled popular anger. Israel carefully targeted only Shia-dominated civilian areas, leaving Sunni and Christian enclaves relatively unscathed. The Opposition accused the government of wilfully neglecting Shias. During the recent protests, Hizbollah activists symbolically dumped debris from their destroyed homes in some of the affluent suburbs of Beirut. More than 200,000 Lebanese were rendered homeless by the Israeli bombings last year and are in urgent need of shelter.

The other reasons for the Opposition taking to the streets are the government's dependence on foreign aid, its acquiescence to the presence of a large number of United Nations troops, and its insistence on the setting up of an international tribunal to look into the assassination of Hariri. All these actions, the Opposition contends, have reduced Lebanon once again to the status of a "mandated" territory. The Opposition also wants Lebanon to be on the frontline in the ongoing struggle for a free Palestine.

The Lebanese government is trying to paint the Opposition as a cat's paw for Iranian ambitions. Some governments in the region have not cared to hide their fears about the rise of what they describe as the Shia crescent. An upsurge in Sunni sentiment following the hanging of Saddam Hussein has further complicated matters. All the same, the majority of Lebanese have not been taken in by the propaganda churned out by the Western media about Hizbollah.

The administration of President George W. Bush views Hizbollah as a pro-Iranian outfit and has said that its top-most priority is to curtail Iranian influence in the region. Hizbollah continues to be labelled a terrorist organisation by the U.S. Sections of the Arab media have also been trying to instigate Sunnis in Lebanon against Hizbollah. There is a concerted attempt to stoke Sunni fears about the dangers of a Shia takeover. Nasrallah warned, on the occasion of Ashoura (Moharram), that "some in the government are working day and night to push matters towards a civil war in Lebanon". He said he would not allow that to happen.

The protesters who have been camping in the centre of Beirut for more than three months have vowed to leave only after the government accedes to their demands. However, patience on both sides of the divide may be fraying fast. Pro-government parties are due to commemorate the second death anniversary of Hariri in mid-February at the same location where Opposition protesters are camped. The occasion has the potential to ignite more bloodletting.

Meanwhile, in a last-ditch attempt to stop the country from imploding, hectic behind-the-scenes negotiations are on between Saudi and Iranian diplomats. Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the top security adviser in the Saudi government, met his Iranian counterpart, Ali Larijani, in the Saudi capital Riyadh in the last week of January. Senior Hizbollah officials also visited Riyadh in the last week of January for talks. Nasrallah has, however, cautioned that an agreement "between two countries or two governments does not bind the Lebanese because the Lebanese must seek their own interests and not the interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran".

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