Friday, August 04, 2006

Lebanon divided

Nasrallah and the three Lebanons

Sami Moubayed

Asia Times 3 August 2006

DAMASCUS - Many in the Arab world are blaming the Lebanese for being so disunited and for not rallying en masse behind Hezbollah and its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. These divisions are strange for those who do not know Lebanon: there are in essence three Lebanons, each with its own history, objectives, alliances and leaders. One friend from "Sunni Lebanon" cursed Hezbollah tremendously, saying that the Shi'ite militia had ruined her life, while another from "Shi'ite Lebanon" (which makes up about 40% of the population) said Hezbollah was the greatest thing about the Arab world since emancipation from the Ottomans in 1918. A third
friend, from "Christian Lebanon", said Hezbollah was not the "Party of God" as its name means in Arabic, but rather "The Party of the Devil".

Still, there are many crossovers in Lebanon, according to a recent poll by the Beirut Center for Research and Information to test the country's pulse on the war in Lebanon. This was done before Israeli warplanes on Sunday bombed the ill-fated village of Qana, killing more than 51 people (including 22 children). This single event strongly increased anti-Israeli sentiment and a genuine desire for either revenge or an immediate ceasefire. The survey was administered among the country's Shi'ites, Sunnis, Druze and Maronite Christians. It surprisingly showed that 70.9% of all Lebanese supported Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers on July 12 that sparked the Israeli retaliation.

Because of the loud criticism of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, only 40% of the Druze community voted in favor of such operations. Christian support, because of the backing General Michel Aoun has given Nasrallah, was at 55%. In all, the survey showed that 87% of the Lebanese people supported Hezbollah's retaliation against Israel, attributed mainly to Hezbollah's celebrated military performance to date. Meanwhile, 89.5% said they did not see the US as an honest broker in the Middle East conflict. Another 64.3% were not satisfied by the performance of Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora. Within the Sunni community, 64.8% said they did not approve of Siniora as premier.

Certainly, then, the poll shows that many Sunni Muslims (and Maronite Christians as well) support Nasrallah. All talk about him having zero support in non-Shi'ite districts is nonsense. Nasrallah has outgrown his Shi'ite identity and transformed himself into a pan-Lebanese, pan-Arab and pan-Islamic leader. The fact that he is a cleric, a Muslim and a Shi'ite is actually of little importance at this stage of his war with Israel. Shi'ite Lebanon

One Lebanon, mostly in the south, is that of Hezbollah, a Lebanon of Shi'ites and the epicenter of anti-Israeli rhetoric and action. This Lebanon is co-shared by the Amal movement of Nabih Berri. Not all inhabitants of this Lebanon are members of Hezbollah, but all of them respect and love Nasrallah. In the 1960s, this Lebanon used to receive no more than 0.7% of the state budget for public works and hospitalization, while the other two Lebanons were being described as the "Switzerland of the East". This is the no-alcohol Lebanon of veiled women, bearded men, poverty-stricken districts and ubiquitous posters of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. This is the Lebanon we see on Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV. This Lebanon is anti-American and anti-Israeli to the bone. Many here, Nasrallah included, speak fluent English, but prefer to converse, think and write in Arabic. French culture in this Lebanon is minimal. A friend of this correspondent lived in the Jnah district of Beirut. When he wanted to move out and sell his furniture, a member of Hezbollah visited him, saying he would buy all of the furniture and appliances and donate them, in the name of Hezbollah, to needy families in the Shi'ite community. And he did.

Another story of Nasrallah's Lebanon is that of a poor woman from the Shi'ite community. She was finding a hard time making ends meet until a member of Hezbollah visited her home in al-Dahiyyieh, a Shi'ite suburb of Beirut. He presented her with a brand-new sewing machine, telling her to work on it and produce sweaters and scarves, promising that all of her output would be bought by Hezbollah. Many hundreds of families in Shi'ite Lebanon live off monthly stipends delivered to their homes at the start of every month, in a sealed envelope, from the secretary general of Hezbollah. The families of the wounded, the arrested in Israeli jails and those who died in combat receive free education and hospitalization, at the expense of Hezbollah. This is the Lebanon that is being targeted by Israel.

For the reasons mentioned above, among others, it will be difficult - if not impossible - to turn the tables against Hezbollah and Nasrallah in their Lebanon. Simply put, Nasrallah is king in his Lebanon. Disarming him by force would be impossible. The Shi'ites, who had suffered from the status of an underclass in the 1950s and 1960s, reversed their fortunes through Iran, wealth from the Shi'ite community in the diaspora, and Nasrallah. They will not disarm at will because, in addition to being a shield against Israel, they view the arms of Hezbollah as a symbol of their strength and very existence. They are strong because Hezbollah is armed. True, other parts of Lebanon have been destroyed in the latest war, but the areas to suffer the most are the Shi'ite districts, in al-Dahiyyieh and south Lebanon. They are paying the high price for supporting Hezbollah, and nobody among the Shi'ites seems to be complaining. Sunni Lebanon

Another Lebanon is that of the Sunni Muslims, headed for 13 years by the towering influence of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in February 2005. It is now under the command of his son, Saad, and Prime Minister Siniora, two US-educated politicians who value liberal economies, open society, and fine, secular education. This is the Lebanon where both pan-Arab and Anglo-Saxon influence are very strong. Its residents speak and understand perfect English, and use it comfortably with Arabic. It is the Lebanon of fine food, good wine, beautiful women, shopping, beaches and pleasure. This is a Lebanon historically allied to Syria. Its leaders in the 1930s and 1940s saw themselves as closer to Damascus and their co-religionists in Syria than they were to the Christians of Mount Lebanon. They originally wanted to reunite with Syria, the motherland, but by the late 1930s had abandoned this idea in favor of being part of Greater Lebanon, on the condition that they be treated as equal to the Christians. This Lebanon broke with Syria after Hariri's assassination. Its leaders, onetime allies of Damascus, turned against Syria when it became unpopular to be pro-Syrian, accusing the Syrians of murdering Hariri.

Unlike Nasrallah's united Lebanon, however, this Lebanon is sharply divided. One side is headed by Saad Hariri. It is anti-Syrian, pro-Saudi Arabian and pro-West. The other is headed by former traditional Sunni notables (especially Beiruti) who were sidelined by the rise of Rafik Hariri in 1992 and continue to lurk in the shadows under Saad. They are pro-Syrian. Leaders of this Lebanon are former prime ministers Salim al-Hoss and Omar Karameh, along with politicians such as Tammam Salam. They believe that Syrian influence has been traded for that of the United States. The Americans promised the post-Syria leaders of Lebanon democracy, prosperity and stability. Instead, they have given them war and bombs, tolerating and then fanning the current war in order to break Hezbollah. Naturally, this group is still allied to Syria and praises Nasrallah as a pan-Islamic and pan-Arab leader. Hariri's Lebanon - the one we see on Future TV (Hariri's station) - dreads the spread of Iranian influence in the Arab world. An anti-Hariri team does exist, but it has terrible public relations managers and is almost unheard or unseen in the international and local media.

Christian Lebanon This the third Lebanon. It is the Lebanon that was once dominant, from the post-Ottoman era until the end of the civil war in 1990. This is the Lebanon that has preserved the sophistication and democracy of Lebanon. It opposed Muslim hegemony in the 1950s and 1960s, refusing to make Lebanon a revolutionary nation inspired by the rebelliousness, socialism and anti-Westernism of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. This Lebanon is influenced tremendously by France. Some of its residents are more comfortable with French than Arabic. Some refuse to learn English to preserve their Franco-Lebanese culture. It is a norm in this Lebanon to wake up every morning and drink coffee while reading French-language newspapers.

This Lebanon is currently headed by the ex-warlord Samir Gagegea, who was recently released from jail, and the former army commander, Michel Aoun. When Aoun allied himself to Nasrallah - sending shock waves throughout Christian Lebanon - many said this was political suicide and would ruin him within the Maronite community. He was labeled a turncoat. It would end his dreams at becoming president of Lebanon, they said. Aoun, however, understood that Lebanon had changed, knowing perfectly well that Christian support alone was no longer enough to secure a seat for him at the Baabda presidential palace.

To understand the wonders Aoun has done for Hezbollah, one must understand how faithful his supporters have been in backing him. When he wanted them to fight the Syrians, they were anti-Syrian to the bone. When he allied to Hezbollah, they became convincing and eloquent defenders of Hezbollah. Aoun's people support everything he tells them. It's that simple. And now he is telling them to stand firm behind Hezbollah and Nasrallah. Israel is trying to turn the tables in Lebanon against the Shi'ites. It wants the Christians to suffer from the Israeli war, and blame Nasrallah for having dragged Lebanon into this confrontation. That is why it has landed bombs in Christian Lebanon. But the Christians are not turning yet against Nasrallah. On the contrary, they are helping with the relief processes, through charity groups, non-governmental organizations, churches and monasteries. This is due to Michel Aoun.

The anti-Hezbollah factions from Christian and Sunni Lebanon say Nasrallah does not have the right to dictate the fate of Lebanon as a country destined to be at war with Israel. This is said by Hariri's and Gagegea's Lebanon. They argue that Nasrallah did not have the right to capture the two Israeli soldiers, in total disregard for the Lebanese government and the people who have subsequently suffered. They say Nasrallah is a creation of Iran and Syria, fighting their proxy war with Israel through Lebanon at the expense of the Lebanese. This war, they argue, has cost Lebanon a staggering sum of US$9 billion to date.

Nasrallah says that (unlike other prominent Lebanese politicians currently in the anti-Syrian camp) he did not use his connections in Damascus to live an extravagant lifestyle, travel to Europe or stash money in foreign banks. He used his connections with the Syrians to buy arms and wage war against Israel - and he is very proud of it. Nasrallah, after all, does not enjoy the luxuries of life. How he sees Lebanon is very different from how the Sunnis or Christians see it. He certainly has never been to tourist attractions in the Lebanese mountains or beach, nor has he imagined the Beirut nightlife. He lives a monastic life surrounded by his family, and drives around in a Mercedes-Benz 500 (1990 model). He could not care less for a thriving Lebanese economy, like Siniora or Hariri, and tourism to him - which has been ruined by this war - means nothing.

The point is: Nasrallah probably does not suffer when he sees Beirut in blackout and in a grinding economic standstill. To most Lebanese, the image of downtown Beirut transformed from a city abuzz with life and spirit into a ghost city spells misery and disaster. To Nasrallah, it just means the normal and expected task of combating the Israelis is under way. As much as Israel, these three Lebanons will decide the fate of the country.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.


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