BEIRUT: Alas, It Looks Like Shiites Vs. The Rest

By Michael Young

Daily Star
Jan 31 2008

The tragic and senseless killing of demonstrators in Shiyyah last
Sunday was, perhaps rightfully, seen as the opening shot in a new
phase of the Lebanese crisis that may turn much more violent. Who
was responsible for the crimes still remains unclear. But a cooler
analysis of what took place shows an equally disturbing reality:
Sunday was a political disaster for the Shiite opposition parties,
Hizbullah and Amal, whose inability to achieve their political ends,
but also to retreat from the brink, makes the likelihood of further
hostilities much greater.

After the end of the summer 2006 war and the growing confrontation
between the parliamentary majority and the opposition, Hizbullah
was always careful to place non-Shiites in the forefront of the
opposition’s actions. While Sunni representatives were anemic,
Michel Aoun was, for a time, someone who added credibility to the
claim that the opposition was multiconfessional. That argument took
a severe beating in the street protests of January 23, 2007, when the
Aounists were unable to block roads for very long in Christian areas
without assistance from the army. By nightfall, even that endeavor
had collapsed as roads inside the Christian heartland and between
Beirut and Tripoli were opened.

However, Aoun struck back in the Metn by-election last summer, when
he managed to get an unknown, Camille Khoury, elected to Parliament.

It was a pyrrhic victory to be sure. The vote tally confirmed that the
general had lost a sizable share of the Maronite vote; it showed that
he relied heavily on a unified Armenian electorate not particularly
committed to the general personally, that might vote very differently
in the future; but it also showed that Aoun was not out of the game,
as some had predicted.

However, from the moment the March 14 coalition decided to support
the army commander, Michel Suleiman, as its candidate for president,
Aoun’s situation changed dramatically. The general had calculated that
a presidential vacuum would enhance his chances of being elected, on
the grounds that the thwarted Christians would rally behind him. In
fact the exact opposite has happened. Provided with the option of
a potentially strong Christian president in Suleiman, displeased
with Aoun’s and his ally Suleiman Franjieh’s wanton attacks against
Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, never really convinced by
the Free Patriotic Movement’s alliance with Hizbullah, the Christians,
many of whom voted for Aoun in 2005, have been steadily turning away
from the general.

A sure sign of this is the behavior of that cunning weathervane of
Christian opinion, Michel Murr. In recent weeks Murr has mounted
a very damaging internal rebellion against Aoun. He has defended
the Arab plan that seeks to bring Suleiman to power as "good for
the Christians," when Aoun’s greatest fear is that his community
will embrace such a line and abandon his own candidacy. Murr has
defended Sfeir against Franjieh’s attacks, even as most Aounist
parliamentarians who once made Bkirki their second home remained
silent. And Murr declared that the Metn would not participate in
opposition street demonstrations. This was an easy promise to make,
because Aoun doesn’t even have the capacity to organize protests in
areas his bloc members represent in Parliament.

The thing is, Murr’s attitude is popular among Christians. And last
Sunday, Aoun found himself in the worst possible situation when his
ally Hizbullah and the army – the one state institution in which the
general still retains some sympathy – clashed. For most Christians the
choice was an easy one to make: They sided with the army, particularly
after demonstrators were reported to have broken cars in the Christian
quarter of Ain al-Rummaneh, where someone later tossed a grenade
that injured several people. In that context, Aoun’s alliance with
Hizbullah now looks to many of his coreligionists like a bad idea,
one that might precipitate a civil conflict if the opposition pursues
its protests, which almost nobody seriously accepts as a demand for
more electricity and cheaper food.

But then put yourselves in Hizbullah’s shoes, and those of the Amal
movement. With your Christian partner neutralized, suddenly the
opposition looks mainly like a Shiite phenomenon. Worse, it looks
like a mainly Shiite phenomenon directed against the Lebanese Army,
a presidential election, and, by extension, the Lebanese state itself.

This is certainly not where Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed
Hassan Nasrallah, ever wanted to position himself; and it is, in a
word, suicidal for Shiites.

However, that apparently has not induced Hizbullah to backtrack. The
Sunday rioting was probably destined to discredit Suleiman. The
opposition’s follow-up criticism of the army commander as someone
who is no longer a consensus presidential candidate lends credence
to this theory. The Syrians have recently been trying to peddle
alternative candidates, via Qatar, to the French – which Qatari and
French denials in fact only confirmed. Suddenly, Hizbullah finds itself
in the uncomfortable position of blocking the election of a man many
Christians regard as a potentially strong leader, all because the
party won’t abandon Aoun, who is on the political decline. And why
won’t it do so? Because Hizbullah desperately needs the general as
an ally in a future government.

Whether Hizbullah’s calculations are mainly domestic, or are shaped
to a large extent by Syria is irrelevant. The party is, perhaps
unintentionally, pushing Shiites into a confrontation with the rest of
Lebanese society to protect itself, and nothing could be worse for the
community. Hizbullah’s inability to achieve any of its political aims
in the past 13 months has only increased its sense of frustration,
and the prospect of violence. The party is flailing, but March 14
must at all costs help think of creative ways to prevent the Shiites
from succumbing to a new "Kerbala complex," a sense that victimhood
is the historical lot of their community.

In 1975, the Christians had their own Kerbala complex, one that
dictated stubbornness in the defense of Christian prerogatives, which
at the time were regarded as an existential red line. In the process
they lost their control over the state. Hizbullah has made defense
of its weapons an existential red line for the Shiite community. But
Kerbala, as one astute analyst has put it, is hardly something the
Shiites should want to remember, as it ended in a massacre and
defeat. Nor is it something any Lebanese should want the Shiite
community to remember, or repeat.

The Christians learned to their detriment during the 1975-1990
conflict that a war against the Sunnis was also in many ways a war
against the Arab world. The Christian community never recovered from
that disaster. That’s a lesson the Shiite community should not have
to learn.

You may also like