Lebanon: A Middle East Microcosm

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This is an important article. Elie Podeh, the head of the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, discusses Lebanon’s current role as a battleground for regional and international political/sectarian/ideological struggles, and compares it with the country’s role in those of the past. In it’s modern history, Lebanon has suffered greatly from this unfortunate role.

The late Malcolm Kerr, (the former President of the American University of Beirut who was murdered in 1984 during the first Lebanon War by gunmen claiming to be from Islamic Jihad) wrote the classic book The Arab Cold War, from which no student of Middle Eastern Studies can escape (well I can name a few). The book describes the war between former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his rivals, which dominated Arab regional politics in the 1950s and 1960s and was more generally a reflection of the conflict between so called radical socialist regimes and the conservative monarchies.

If there is a new Arab Cold War, it would reflect the growing Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian divide within the Muslim and Arab world, and other lesser conflicts, both regional and international, that are once again being played out in Lebanon. Read for yourself:

A Middle Eastern microcosm (Haaretz)
By Elie Podeh

Lebanon, like Israel, prefers to put off the really important questions until “after the holidays.” The Lebanese Parliament, which convened – though not at its full strength – on September 25, has decided to postpone the question of electing a president until its October 23 session, after the month of Ramadan and the Id al-Fitr holiday. This affords more time to strike a deal on a candidate.

The Lebanese presidential elections are ostensibly an internal matter, but in fact, 20th- and 21st-century Lebanese history has been tied to the history of the world, particularly the Arab world. The domestic political crises in Lebanon have, at least in part, stemmed from outside involvement, and therefore Lebanon has been and remains a microcosm of the region’s problems.

The civil war that erupted in 1958 was a result of an internal struggle over extending the Maronite Christian president Camille Chamoun’s term, but also stemmed from Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabist influence. The Sunnis, who were ideologically and politically close to Nasser, supported joining a Syrian-Egyptian union, while the Christians opposed the move, which was liable to harm their dominance in Lebanon. The West supported the Christians, and United States marines were sent in to protect Lebanon in the wake of the July 1958 revolution in Iraq, which was perceived in the West as Pro-Soviet.

Both the Cold War and the struggle between the two Lebanese factions were manifested in the Civil War. Although Chamoun’s term was not extended and Fouad Shihab was elected as his successor, the danger of Communism and “assimilation” into the Sunni Arab world were pushed off.

Another example of this microcosm is the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. This war stemmed from a political expression of the Muslims’ growing proportion of the population, as this group demanded a change to the National Pact of 1943 that would grant them more political clout. However, beyond this internal issue, the civil war also reflected a number of major Arab issues. The first was Syria’s regard for Lebanon as an arena of influence within the inter-Arab struggle, manifested by the Syrian force that entered Lebanon and remained there through April 2005. The second was the struggle between Egypt and Saudi Arabia for regional hegemony, as seen in their diplomatic intervention to end the war. The third was the strengthening of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, after its defeat in Jordan during the events of Black September in 1970. This focused the Israeli-Arab conflict on the Palestinian issue and led to the first Lebanon war in 1982. Finally, there was the beginning of Iranian involvement to help the oppressed Shi’ites.

The Arab involvement led to the end of the civil war with the 1989 signing of the Taif agreement. This agreement introduced several changes to the National Pact, but did not solve the Syrian problem or the question of dismantling militias fighting Israel, such as Hezbollah.

War, take two

During the Second Lebanon War last summer, Lebanon again became a microcosm of regional conflicts. Although the war was conducted as a bilateral fight between Israel and Hezbollah (and not the Lebanese government), it actually reflected several broader conflicts. First on the list was the conflict between the West and Iran. This conflict is being conducted around the nuclear issue, but Iran’s influence on Shi’ite communities plays a large role. Hezbollah is perceived as an Iranian proxy in the struggle for control of Lebanon and the Shi’ite world and as part of an “axis of evil” that includes al-Qaida, Hamas and Syria.

A second issue was the ideological Shi’ite-Sunni struggle within the Muslim and Arab world. The U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Shi’ites’ rise to power there adversely affected the intra-religious balance in the Arab world. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Sunni Arab countries saw the war through the prism of the Shi’ite-Sunni struggle, and therefore it is not surprising that they secretly sided with Israel. Within Lebanon, too, the anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance – the civic alliance, also known as the Cedar Revolution, that arose in the wake of former prime minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005 – consists mostly of Sunnis and Druze, who fear the strengthening of the country’s Shi’ites. The fact that the war did not end with a clear outcome means these parties are preparing for the next round in the fight over the presidency.

Lebanon’s transformation into a focal point for regional rivalries has several historical reasons. First off, Lebanese society is composed of a mosaic of ethnic groups and religions. The traditional split between Christians (Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Armenians and more) and Muslims (Shi’ites and Sunnis) – for a total of 18 official communities – does not always help in understanding the politics, which rests on alliances that cross community and religious lines. In this struggle, various groups have found allies outside of Lebanon – including France, the United States, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. With the rise of the Shi’ites in Lebanon since the 1980s, Iran has become a major factor in the Lebanese political and military arena.

As a result of the Lebanese state’s weakness, various external elements have found themselves compelled to intervene in internal matters in order to maintain the balance among the communities. The PLO, Syria and Israel have become the major players in the Lebanese arena, because of their geographical proximity and their national interests. However, more distant factors, such as Iran and the Western powers, also have found allies that serve their interests. The weakness of the state stems from the weakness of its institutions – especially the army, which has also been split among the various communities, leading to the establishment of sectarian militias. It is no wonder, then, that the strengthening of the army in recent years also presages a strengthening of the state.

The current struggle for the Lebanese presidency is being conducted between the players in the Second Lebanon War, minus Israel. To a large extent, this is a more intensive and impassioned fight than the one over President Emile Lahoud’s term – which finally was extended in the wake of Syrian pressure and a 2004 constitutional amendment. There is no doubt that the next president – if one is indeed elected and a political vacuum is not created – will be a Maronite Christian, in accordance with the recognized rules of the game. However, Syria and Iran are interested in seeing former army commander Michel Aoun elected. Aoun, who returned about a year ago from a long exile in Paris, surprisingly has linked up with Hezbollah. Through Aoun and his allies, Syria is hoping to continue to influence the decision-making process in Beirut, after having been compelled to retreat shamefacedly in the wake of the anti-Syrian Cedar Revolution in May 2005.

The Shi’ite challenge

The influence of Syria in Lebanon could serve the former by canceling or postponing the work of the international commission investigating Hariri’s assassination. In parallel, Hezbollah – supported by Iran – is interested in strengthening its political hold in order to reap dividends from the Shi’ite population growth and the Second Lebanon War. This camp rests on a Lebanese political coalition that links Christians and Muslims (mostly Shi’ite Hezbollah supporters), who are expecting to benefit from the unholy alliance between Iran and Syria.

On the other side is a large camp that includes the U.S., Europe (mainly France and Italy) and Sunni Arab countries, mainly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and is concerned about the strengthening of Iran and Syria. Members of this camp fear the growth of Shi’ite strength in Lebanon and, as a result, throughout the Arab world, which would bolster Iran’s status in the Middle East. This camp also is interested in isolating Syria and in weakening its influence in Beirut, which would return Lebanon to the path of rehabilitation it left after Hariri’s assassination.

This approach relies on Lebanese forces that have come quite a way since the Beirut spring, including the March 14 Alliance and other Christian, Sunni and Druze elements. The most important change in this group has been its partnership with Sunnis, mainly in the wake of Hariri’s assassination, which led many to forgo the delusion of the Sunni Arab solution (Syria) in favor of full Lebanese independence. The latest assassinations in Lebanon, which apparently were carried out by Syria or its emissaries, targeted individuals associated with this camp, and were aimed at weakening the bloc that seeking an independent president, in order to prevent the completion of the process of regaining independence.

Given that Lebanon constitutes a microcosm of regional processes, it is tempting to see the presidential elections as a struggle for the future of the Middle East. This conclusion may be too strong, because walking on the threshhold and compromises are the name of the game in Lebanese politics. The elections undoubtedly constitute an important juncture that will determine whether Lebanon is headed for rehabilitation and whether patriotism will be strengthened, at the expense of sectarianism. The Lebanese press also sees the elections as a crossroad, and is emphasizing that this is the time to prove the country is capable of determining its own fate. By November 24, the last date by which the Parliament can elect the president – we will know the answer.

Israel, naturally, is following what is happening in Lebanon with concern. Its interests place it, of course, with the Western and Sunni Arab countries. However, unlike them, Israel does not need to intervene in what is happening in Lebanon. It appears that the era of Syrian influence must end with the election of an independent Lebanese president; however, the strengthening of the Lebanese Shi’ites due to regional processes (Iraq) and the demographic increase indicate that this era has not yet ended. Given that the number of Christians is constantly decreasing – due to both emigration and a low birthrate – it appears that over the long term, Israel will have to deal with the Shi’ite challenge, with all the problems this entails.

The writer is a professor and head of the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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