The following article, written by Lebanese socialist Ghassan Makarem, was published on Z-net before the latest (14 March) mass demonstrations in Beirut against Syrian troops, and against a government which is seen to be pro-Syrian. Under US/international pressure, which followed the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri, Syria has begun troop withdrawal. Makarem argues that the opposition is very heterogeneous, and is dominated by reactionary elements, including the communal leaders of Lebanon’s Druze and Maronite Christian sects. Both resent the fact that they have lost some political power since the end of the civil war. All the religious sects apart from the Shia are over-represented in Lebanon’s cumbersome political system, organised on confessional lines. The pro-Syrian demonstrations, called by the Shia Islamist militia-party Hizbollah, have gained mass Shia support. The Shia population of Lebanon constitutes both the largest single group in the country (41%) and the most oppressed.
The fear now must be that the mobilisations in Lebanon will lead to renewed sectarian conflict.
There is absolutely no question that Syrian presence in the country and their sponsorship of this ruling class should end. But there should also be no question that we cannot allow the genuine calls for peace and freedom to be hijacked by fascists and war criminals.
The road Rafic Hariri’s motorcade prefers when coming back from downtown Beirut is the stretch of corniche linking it with the western part of the city. The exit, or entrance, is flanked on two sides by four and five-star hotels catering for rich tourists. On 14 February 2005, it decided to take this road again on his way back from a meeting at the Parliament, which lies among a cluster of expensive restaurants in the heart of the city.
Downtown Beirut is better known as SOLIDERE, the multibillion dollar company partially owned by Hariri. The company owns the whole of downtown: its buildings, roads, services, security, cafes, hotels, office blocks, pavements, parks, and even Beirut’s municipality, with one exception: the St George’s Hotel west of the corniche. Its owner refuses to give in and even supports a campaign to stop SOLIDERE. Last month, a meeting called by the Committee for Rightful Owners in Downtown Beirut (representing around 400 former owners, lease-holders, and businesses) was harassed by the regime in support of SOLIDERE. St George’s Hotel was probably the last building Hariri saw.
At 12:55 pm on 14 February Hariri’s state of the art motorcade was blasted to pieces by 300 kilograms (or so it seems) of TNT.
Hariri’s politics were not as clear as his economic project to turn Beirut into a Hong Kong with what this entails — privatisation and cutting of social services. Downtown Beirut is what the city is supposed to look like: banks, cafes, restaurants, nightclubs, businessmen, a UN building where aid money is squandered, and of course more mosques and churches. Almost all of the new businesses and outlets in the area cater for the rich: visiting Lebanese émigrés and the many tourists that arrive each summer from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other countries.
The exclusivity of the “new” downtown is reinforced by private security and the Lebanese army whose protection of the main square includes barring people wearing Palestinian headscarves and cars full of young people venturing from the poor suburbs to take a look at the Promised Land.
The reality in Lebanon is clear: $40 billion in debt, 30% unemployment, an alarming rate of brain drain, around a million people living in crowded neighbourhoods and slums, and the remainder of the country considered as peripheral. The middle class — once characterising Lebanon’s exception amongst its highly stratified Arab neighbours — has almost ceased to exist. Not too long ago, a few hundred workers dared to demonstrate against rising fuel prices. Five demonstrators were shot and killed at point blank by the Lebanese army. Hariri was still prime minister. Nobody in the so-called opposition questioned the crime.
Actually, Hariri was getting closer to them through the long-standing alliance (and business deals) with the opposition’s leader, Walid Jumblatt. After the unconstitutional and illegitimate renewal of President Lahhoud’s term last September, Hariri resigned from the government, keeping good ties to its sponsor, the Syrian regime. He hoped that the rising wave of opposition against the renewal and against the government’s policies (a watered-down version of his own neo-liberal adventure) would put him back in power. For this, he needed the Syrians. He also wanted a power-base, and since he marketed himself as a Sunni leader, he needed the support of a few of the 19 official religious sects. That is why he needed the opposition that was gaining more popularity by calling for a Syrian withdrawal from the country.
The opposition, unimaginatively called “the opposition” or the “Bristol Meeting” after the five-star hotel where they assemble, is an odd bunch. It ranges from the Democratic Left Movement (HYD — after its Arabic acronym), a splinter from the Lebanese Communist Party, and some “centre-left” intellectuals who supported the US-led invasion of Iraq, to the Gemayyel Phalanges. Gemayyel is the son of the former leader of the party, the Kata’eb or the Phalanges. The party itself was formed after Pierre Gemayyel Sr. visited Nazi Germany and was enthralled by the Hitler Youth in the 1936 Olympics. Continuing his grandfather’s legacy, Pierre Jr (the grandson) had insulted the Shi’a sect a few weeks ago by calling them “a quantity”, basically meaning “rabble”, while he represented “the quality”, i.e., the Christians.
The most vocal member of the opposition is Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze sect, a member of the Lebanese parliament, an ex-minister, and the head of the Progressive Socialist Party. He is also a large property owner and one of Lebanon’s multimillionaires. But perhaps he is best known as the leader of the militia that ethnically cleansed its region of Christians during the Lebanese civil war. He admitted to this on many occasions, reminding us that he is protected by the amnesty law he, and his fellow warlords, had put in place after the same group of people who ran the civil war were selected by the United States, Syria, and Saudi Arabia to run the country during peacetime.
The meeting where the second Lebanese republic was created, pronouncing a formal end to the civil war, took place in 1989 in the city of Taef in northwestern Saudi Arabia. It became possible when Syria, under US supervision, removed General Michel Aoun from the Presidency after the latter’s failed attempt at a “war of liberation” from Syrian occupation. It was a war that saw the liberators pointing their guns at the western sector of Beirut, because they happened to control the eastern sector of the city. When they were done, they pointed their guns at their opponents in their sector. It was one of the bloodiest episodes of the Lebanese civil war. This does not matter of course because it is also covered by the amnesty law.
Aoun, now living in France, is the other strong pole in the opposition. While Walid Jumblatt controls the Druze sect (and the “Democratic Left”), Aoun controls a large portion of the Christians who blame Syria’s presence in Lebanon for many of their ills. Although they espouse “Lebanese Nationalism”, they managed to adopt the slogan of their Arab nationalist opponents. “No Voice Rises Above the Voice of Battle” was a motto used by successive Arab regimes and pan-Arab parties to stifle any call for change not necessarily passing through the “liberation” of Palestine. This motto, so hated by the intellectuals of the centre-left, became their slogan in the opposition. All the ills of the country (i.e., the fact that they do not have a share in the regime) are a result of Syrian occupation and thus Syria must be removed before anything else is done.
Syria had been scorned by the “international community”, i.e., the UN Security Council comprised of the five remaining empires of the Second World War and 10 observers. UNSC Resolution 1559 calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. The opposition, almost all previously given their political positions through Syrian intervention in the civil war, used the opportunity to rise against the Syrian supported government. Hariri was about to join the opposition, already sending people to represent him. Thus, the conclusion of many was that Syria killed Hariri. This belief is shared by France and not denied by the US. It is also shared by most of the ordinary Lebanese who have voiced their opinions in the past few days.
The strength of this conclusion is bolstered by its support in the majority of local and regional mass media, capitalising on Hariri’s image as a saviour (he just loved the poor and invited them to eat at his house during the holy month of Ramadan).
The polarisation has reached its peak. The opposition is calling for daily sit-ins near Hariri’s grave, conveniently located close to the cafes of downtown, Virgin Megastores, and Martyr’s Square. The organisers are calling for all “real” Lebanese to join, echoing the placards held by Lebanese expatriates in France and the US saying “Lebanon is for the Lebanese”: Le Pen must be very proud of that. Actually, some of the opposition’s organisers in Paris are members of Le Pen’s gang.
The sporadic but real attacks against Syrian workers and the chants against members of communities not represented in the Bristol coalition prove that this is not an exception. The “left” of the opposition, represented by the ex-Communists (HYD), some pro-democracy intellectuals, and the Movement for Democratic Renewal dismiss these incidents and claim that since Lebanon is fighting for its independence, fascist and racist reactions are somehow acceptable.
The lessons of national liberation movements, along with their “soft” racism (e.g., pan-Arabists’ snubbing of Kurdish or Amazigh calls for representation) have definitely not been learned. This time, the “enemy” is Syrian economic migrants employed in the businesses of people such as Hariri, Jumblatt, Nassib Lahhoud (the za’im of the Movement for Democratic renewal and another millionaire), and used as leverage by the ruling class (the regime and its opposition) against the working class in Lebanon.
The powers comprising the regime, better known as “the supporters” (of Syria), have their share of warlords and capitalists. It is formed of the ex-head of the army acting as President of the Republic, various Syrian Ba’thists, Syrian Nationalists (another party inspired by Hitler), the Amal Movement (headed by the speaker of the Parliament and responsible for its fair share of war crimes including the siege of Palestinian camps that caused almost as much calamity as the Sabra and Shatila massacres), warlords, sons of feudal lords, and the symbols of political and economic corruption in the country.
Hizbollah wants to act as a mediator since any instability could jeopardise the work of the resistance. It also fears that US demands against them will be adopted by the Lebanese opposition who question the role of the resistance and are already pulling the party into a confrontation, to the elation of Western powers. The Communist Party is choosing a policy of “wait and see”.
Demonstrators carrying the flags of the Phalanges, the Lebanese Forces (a civil war militia responsible for massacres, indiscriminate bombing, and kidnapping civilians), the Guardian of the Cedars (whose leader is sponsored by the Israeli regime), and the Druze Socialist Party; clutching replicas of Jesus on the cross in one hand and the Koran in the other; and holding a couple of banners with nonsensical slogans signed by the marginal forces of the opposition held a rally near the site of the explosion and followed it by an open sit-in.
It remains to be seen whether the regime will decide to repress the opposition. Police-state tactics are not uncommon, but it seems that the government plans to let things pass so as not to be responsible for a bloodbath. It also remains to be seen whether some of the more rational elements of the opposition can counter the general racist attitude of the coalition. Unfortunately, Walid Jumblatt had promised us that the regime will go to hell, bolstered by French and US support. Those who want to remember the atrocities of the civil war know exactly what Jumblatt’s hell means.
During 15 years of civil war and a similar period of peace, Lebanon has seen what both camps are capable of: complete destruction of the country during the war, followed by the collapse of the educational and health systems and other public services, more debt per-capita than many of the worst cases in Latin America, the shutting out of women and young people from the democratic process, some of the worst examples of corruption in the world, and an economic plan that created an unbridgeable gap between the 5% who have everything and those who have nothing but an elusive promise of a visa anywhere but here.