I sat down to watch the news on Tuesday and I was shocked beyond belief to see that the Lebanese leaders in Doha have reached an agreement. The government and opposition now appear to have agreed on the allocation of cabinet seats to form a new unity government that will give crucial veto power to the opposition, something that has been a key sticking point. The opposition got 11 out of 30 cabinet seats, meaning it can block any government decision it does not agree with. And the two sides also resolved a dispute over a parliamentary law for elections to be held next spring. The two sides also agreed on General Michel Suleiman, the head of the army, as a consensus candidate to succeed Emile Lahoud.
I am mildly optimistic about this agreement. The essential divisions of interests and influence among major regional players in Lebanon remains unchanged and are likely to undermine the future stability of any unity administration.
The deeper conflict will definitely persist as it is rooted in the sectarian nature of the Lebanese political system that inhibits the emergence of national statesmen strong enough to care for all Lebanon’s citizens and resist mischievous intervention from regional or international patrons.
The continued Israeli, Saudi and Western obsession with Iran (which these days is being used interchangeably with “Shi’a” in a bid to fan sectarian flames) means that they will already be planning ahead for the next battle in Lebanon in order to halt the perceived Iranian attempt to dominate the region through an array of Shi’a proxies stretching from Beirut to Damascus, Gaza to Baghdad and from Iran to Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
The armed clashes that occurred two weeks ago between Hizbullah and pro-government forces in Lebanon are said to be just another sign of Iran’s hegemonic reach. This perception may be convincing at first glance, but it’s based on generalizations that reveal more about its advocates than the actual reality on the ground. It’s being used to continue unconditional Western support for increasingly unstable regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
The Shi’a majority in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East is deeply troubling to the neighboring Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. In fact, it is believed that these countries are secretly supporting the Sunni rejectionists in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, and are increasing the belligerency of the March 14 forces.
Therefore, the recent conciliatory agreements made in Doha must be read as a strategic objective to gain time and space to re-group. In this larger war, unlike the street battles of last week, there can be no winners among the Lebanese people, only losers, just as there has been among the Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans, Somalis and others who have been caught in the same global, and apparently perpetual, conflict.
The disconcerting silence of Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most troubling. Not only have the Saudi-sponsored sectarian militias in Lebanon been defeated, but now its tiny but increasingly ambitious Gulf rival state of Qatar has rubbed salt into its wounds by stealing the diplomatic limelight and consolidating its role as regional peacemaker. The Saudis have both the means and influence to mobilize Sunni Salafist groups in Lebanon in a protracted sectarian war against Hizbullah, or precipitate the collapse of the Lebanese economy, if it decides it has “lost” the country to Iran.
The violence that occurred two weeks ago may also have a significant impact on the Sunni community. A progressive phase of empowerment of the non-violent Islamist trends such as the Muslim Brotherhood may now occur, reflecting the attitudes of a conservative, middle class mainstream that couldn’t switch from support for the Future to support for more radical expressions of Sunni identity such as Salafism.
The very idea of the national resistance in Lebanon, so effective in militarily defeating the Israeli occupation and puncturing the myth of Zionist supremacy vis-a-vis the Arabs, has been enhanced following the battles of last week. Under these circumstances, it is not difficult to imagine yet another Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the coming months but this time, some of those that lost the street battles in Beirut might join the fight against Hizbullah.
The situation in Lebanon may take many directions. The country may split up or hold together; it may sink into civil war. If civil war breaks out in Lebanon, it will not be an effect of Sunni bungling, but an inevitable outcome of Shi’a dominance. What you will see going on in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East is democracy-embracing Shi’a being targeted by various terrorist groups committed to murder and mayhem in the effort to not only return ascendancy to Sunnis, but wipe out Shi’a Muslims once and for all. The West cannot decide which direction sectarian conflict will take. It would commit a big mistake if it tips the balance in Sunni favor because the West and the Shi’a share the same problem, that being violence from Wahhabi/Salafist followers. They must be friends.
Stability in Lebanon will require compromise among Shi’a, Sunni, and Christians. In order for that to happen, the Lebanese have one choice and that is to throw out the inherently corrupt, sectarian political class and demand real changes to the political and economic systems in order to come together as a nation.
The writer is professor of interdisciplinary studies at the University of Toledo, in Toledo, Ohio.