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27 May 2008

Descent into sectarianism

Lebanon finally has a new president but tensions still continue in the country. Here Christopher Dav

By Christopher Davidson

A peaceful strike organised by the Lebanese National Labour Union in protest over low salaries, was dramatically and violently hijacked by Hezballah with support from militias loyal to Amal and the Syrian National Party.

Ostensibly these opposition movements were enraged by the Sunni-dominated government’s dismissal of a Shia head of airport security and its claims that Hezballah’s recently installed telecoms infrastructure was illegal. Tellingly, more than three hours before the labour action was supposed to commence, Hezballah and other allied units were rolling large lorry tires into position on main highways, and militants were taking up sniper positions in Sunni-populated suburbs of Beirut.

By midday, almost all pro-government loyalists had been routed by the much better armed Hezballah fighters. Lebanese Army forces remained impassive and in some cases even retreated from their assigned positions, their commanders worried that soldiers would soon take off their uniforms if they entered the fray. By evening, only the residence of Saad Hariri – the parliamentary majority holder – had adequate army protection, being ringed by a rather frightened looking team of commandos.

Without doubt this was a well planned military coup. Sunni and allied Druze leaders, including the ubiquitous Walid Jumblatt, were rapidly stripped of their status and left at the mercy of the Shia occupiers. A larger-than-life statue of the late Rafik Hariri – erected controversially earlier this year on Phoenicia Street – was peppered with bullets and urinated upon. Also symbolically, Shia militants marched up and down Hamra Street – a main commercial thoroughfare for Sunni Lebanese – and gunmen were stationed on the steps of the nearby Ministry of Economy building.

In many ways this coup has marked the beginning of an inevitable Shia revolution in Lebanon. For decades, the Shia community has been the third wheel in the country. After the civil war, it was only really the Sunni community that gained any ground, with control over a prime minister position with enhanced powers, and with a much greater role in the national economy – almost on a par with the Christian community – courtesy of Gulf investments and remittances from Sunni Lebanese expatriates. Until May of this year the Shia community remained firmly in last place, remaining both politically and economically disenfranchised, despite becoming the most populous sect in Lebanon.

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For the last few years it has almost been possible to sympathise with Hezballah’s cause. It represented the only powerful voice of this neglected Shia community, and its militia fended off Israel in the summer of 2006. Unfortunately, if Hezballah really is a patriotic Lebanese movement, then its latest actions have been a severe miscalculation. It may have brought to an end the impasse over the instalment of a new president, and it may have pulled its gunmen out of West Beirut, but the use of weapons on fellow Lebanese nationals will not be forgotten, as sectarian wounds that had only just begun to heal have now been re-opened.

Civil war has been avoided, but the Sunni and Druze leaders are now emasculated – they have had little option but to meet Hezballah’s immediate demands, revoking their airport security and telecoms decisions. But more importantly, Hezballah has been able to push for its preferred presidential candidate, Michel Sulayman, the army chief of staff. With such an indebted Christian figurehead, Hezballah may be maintaining Lebanon’s precarious national pact, but most crucially it has brought the country’s only remaining national institution into defacto alliance, thereby further securing its right to field the only legitimately armed militia.

As guardians over a state-within-a-state that has now hijacked the state itself, the shadow cast over Lebanon by Hezballah and its external sponsors has darkened further. Even if there is an uneasy peace, it will take years for confidence in the economy to rebuild. A fresh wave of educated Sunni and Christian Lebanese – the future of the country – will abandon their homeland for greener pastures, never to return.

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