Lebanon: The forgotten revolution

Uprisings elsewhere in the region shouldn't blind us from the upheaval in Beirut.

The bronze statue in downtown Beirut, commemorating those who fought for Lebanese freedom from foreign occupation - first against the Ottomans, then against the French - is presciently one of the few surviving structures in Martyrs' Square from before the Lebanese civil war. Pocked with bullet holes, it is now in a no-man's land; flanked by busy roads on either side.

Although the Middle East is saturating news reports at the moment, Lebanon has been mostly ignored since the uprisings began in Tunisia in mid-January. However, it was in Lebanon where the first Middle Eastern revolution was quietly staged in early January 2011, and Lebanon whose future is most uncertain.

Visible from the Martyrs' statue is a massive tent-like mausoleum in which rests the body of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated on 14 February 2005 when his motorcade was bombed in central Beirut. Lebanon has seldom been stable, but the controversy and mystery surrounding the circumstances of Hariri's murder are the key to understanding its unclear future.

Hariri was a self-made billionaire construction mogul of the Sunni Islamic faith, and held the Prime Ministerial position for two non-consecutive terms from 1992 till 1998, and then from 2000 till 2004. However, he eventually resigned from office in October 2004, purportedly over a disagreement as to the extent of Syria's influence in Lebanese affairs. Indeed, Syria had occupied Lebanon since 1975, in an uneasy relationship based primarily on protection, but its popularity had been severely waning since 2000. In fact, it was in 2000 that the Israelis withdrew from southern Lebanon, and when the Syrian president Hafez al-Asad died, leaving the title to his son Bashar. Under these circumstances it seemed that the Syrians had little left to offer Lebanon, and their presence became less welcome in the country.

A month before Hariri quit, in September 2004, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1559 which called for respect of Lebanese sovereignty and the withdrawal of all foreign occupations. Though this request carried international weight, Syria still made little attempt to withdraw. Five months later, Rafiq Hariri was dead, the victim of a calculated bombing.

On 30 May 2007, the UN Security Council established the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to attempt to find the perpetrators of Rafiq Hariri's murder. Though Syria were initially suspected, it appears now that certain anonymous members of the Lebanese Shia Islamic organisation Hezbollah are most likely to be indicted, a move which threatens to destabilise Lebanon's fragile peace.

The US and the Dutch governments have branded Hezbollah a terrorist organisation, but many others do not agree, citing its social development schemes and property development unit as evidence. The latter, named Waad SAL, helped rebuild the southern suburbs of Beirut, partially from their own funds, after the 33-day war with Israel in 2006. Nevertheless, Hezbollah's Iranian funded military wing serves as a powerful political tool in Lebanon, with many claiming that they win elections and policy concessions through threat of violence rather than positive policies. Others argue Hezbollah are the only real ideological alternative to a corrupt, secular, pro-West group of politicians, headed by the Hariri dynasty. In fact, Rafiq Hariri's son, Saad, became Prime Minister in 2009.

The main divide in Lebanon can be understood from the 'Cedar Revolution' that took place in March 2005, a direct consequence of Hariri's death. Though the 8th March that year saw tens of thousands of pro-Syria demonstrators arrive at Martyrs' Square in a Hezbollah organised protest, March 14th saw over one million anti-Syria demonstrators cram themselves into the area.

Political alliances were built from these protests, with Rafiq Hariri's son, Saad, heading the March 14th alliance, backed by Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the small but powerful Islamic group, the Druze. The secular Free Patriotic Movement fronted the March 8th alliance, with strong support from Hezbollah. Roughly a month after the protests, Syria had completely withdrawn.

In late 2010 and early 2011, instability returned to Lebanon as pressure began to mount on Saad Hariri when the Special Tribunal's pace quickened. Furthermore, the Syrian-Saudi attempts at mediating between Lebanon's conflicting March alliances failed. Amid leaks that certain members of Hezbollah would be accused by the UN, the organisation made it clear that it would not accept any indictments of its own people. In protest at Hariri's staunch reluctance to denounce the issue, Hezbollah pulled representatives out of the cabinet in mid January 2011, forcing the government's collapse.

In the search for a new cabinet and Prime Minister, fears of a new rise in sectarian violence were widespread if Saad Hariri were to be reappointed. Eventually, in what is claimed to be a self-interested move, Walid Jumblatt switched allegiance from the pro-West faction to the Hezbollah-backed pro-Syria faction, necessitating the appointment of Hezbollah's preferred candidate, Najib Mikati as Prime Minister. Thousands of angry people gathered to protest in Martyrs' Square, but little came of it. As the wave of large Middle Eastern protests began in Tunisia, Lebanon had already revolted and emerged anew with an Islamic-backed government.

Though Martyrs' Square is quiet for now, the streets of Beirut are crawling with soldiers anticipating a potential outbreak of violence in reaction to the imminent release of the UN indictments. Politically untouchable, it is likely now that Hezbollah will pressure Mikati to block any UN decision, which will greatly anger much of the secular, Sunni and Maronite Christian population in Lebanon, as well as the Israeli, and the US governments. Hezbollah themselves see the tribunal as biased, and believe Hariri was killed by Israel to destabilise Lebanon.

Ultimately the legacy of the country's tumultuous history ensures that whatever the UN decides, peace and stability in Lebanon look to be severely under threat.

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

Getty
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.