Today the Christian community of Lebanon retains a political privilege from the past, privilege that comes at a heavy cost. Lebanon is on the verge of collapse if a strong and respected presidential leader does not emerge by November 24. Elections are scheduled for November 12, but they may be postponed again, this time only for a few days.
The debate about the next president is more about attitudes than about character. The burning issue is whether the new president will allow Hizbullah — the strongest political party — to maintain its paramilitary force outside the framework of the national army.
The deadlock over the presidential election is linked to a series of state-threatening events that started sixteen months ago. Hizbullah’s paramilitary force provoked a war in the summer of 2006; as a condition of ending this war Hizbullah was to disarm and Israel was to withdraw from Lebanese land and air space. Both parties have been violating the international agreement.
Israel in this short war tried hard, but failed, to wipe out Lebanon’s “resistance movement,” Hizbullah. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 authorized ending this summer war by deploying an international peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) and banning all militia formations.
The disregard of Resolution 1701 reflects a characteristic lack of appreciation in the region for international agreements of social justice. Today, the firmness on U.N. Resolution 1701 that is expressed in the West on Hizbullah contrasts with the looseness of Resolution 242 on Israeli occupation of Arab territories, which has been shelved since 1967.
Israel views the results of the summer 2006 war as a humiliation, and it believes that Hizbullah’s military structure must be demolished. While Israel was bombarding the nation, the Lebanese united against this external threat. But at the end of the war when the extended devastation was assessed, the fervor of nationalism subsided. Most Lebanese wish that Hizbullah would sooner rather than later find a way to comply with Resolution 1701.
In the immediate aftermath of the summer war, Hizbullah kept a low profile by vacating the Lebanese southern border area, a stronghold they had held for over twenty years, to allow the Lebanese army and the UNIFIL to patrol the border.
However, sentiments soon changed. Rumors spread that the Lebanese government had conspired with the Israeli forces to defeat Hizbullah. Hizbullah’s leaders accused the pro government politicians of cooperating with Israel during the war.
A few weeks later, Hizbullah started looking for a new political strategy to secure its future. Hizbullah needed partners to launch a collective civil revolt against the government. General Michel Aoun was the natural ally. Aoun, a secular Christian leader, had already signed a “Memo of Understanding” with Hizbullah well in advance of the summer war- in February 2006. He established this agreement to program its gradual demilitarization through dialogue and national reform.
In bonding with Aoun’s Christian movement, Hizbullah strengthened its national credentials, magnified its political weight (as an opponent to the government), and opened a dialogue between liberal Christians and the largest community, the Shi’a.
Three month after the summer war, the nation was somewhat surprised by the new strategy of the Hizbullah-Aoun coalition, known as the opposition. On December 1, 2006, the opposition, joined by smaller groups, started a sit-in strike. The strike has had the impact of a civil coup d’etat. Hundreds of young men and women have occupied the plaza surrounding the parliament in downtown Beirut. While civil strife has died down, incidents of political assassination have picked up. Pro government parliamentarians are afraid to appear in public and being targeted.
The opposition demanded “reform and a change” in the cabinet that would widen their representation and offer Hizbullah’s militia informal recognition. To emphasize their demands, opposition politicians boycotted the cabinet and the parliament. This political rebellion made governance dysfunctional and threatened the stability of the economic system.
For about a year, the opposition has been trying to pressure the government to ignore Resolution 1701. But the government argues that it is obligated to honor this resolution. The country has a massive national debt. The debt requires economic assistance from the international community if Lebanon is to avoid an economic meltdown.
Lebanon’s surface politics is covertly international. There is an ongoing confrontation between Iran and the U.S. over the issue of Hizbullah’s arms, making the Lebanese situation even more precarious. Americans have zero tolerance for militias, which it considers agencies of terrorism; while Iran supports Hizbullah, which it considers a legitimate movement for political struggle.
Both Iran and the U.S. have exerted pressure against compromise. For the U.S., a future Lebanese president who would authorize Hizbullah’s militia is equated with a leader who carries the sword against Israel and Uncle Sam, and who opens the borders of his country for Syria and Iran’s alleged programs of terrorism. Reciprocally, for Iran, a president that is unfriendly to Hizbullah is equated with a leader who would facilitate for Uncle Sam and Israel their alleged imperialist plans for the region.
Washington has recently imposed a heavier dose of economic sanctions on Iran to coerce President Ahmedinejad to abandon his nuclear program. The U.S. treats Iran as a rogue regime that is preparing to “wipe Israel off the map” with the use of an atomic bomb, development of which is believed to be underway. In contrast, the U.S. closely cooperates with Israel and has ignored Tel-Aviv’s occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights and the Palestinian territories since the 1967 war, as well as its rogue nuclear program and refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran and Syria retaliate in response to Washington’s foreign policy by empowering Hizbullah as a proxy army against U.S. and Israeli interests in the region.
Regrettably, the current administration in Washington appears often to work on the principle “if you can’t fix it, break it.” Reciprocally, Syria and Iran are willing to create chaos in Lebanon to spoil Washington’s dream of creating regimes of compliance.
The new Lebanese president will have to perform miracles to restore viability of this country. When the new president is finally found, the world may wonder what this man can do when the systems around him and beyond him are so discouraging.
When a minority community insists on retaining an important political privilege for the sake of tradition and security it pays for it in subtle but painful ways.