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Lebanese stalemate

3. February 2007

Interview with Saham Idriss on the pro-US forces to instigate a civil
war, the difficulties of the popular opposition and the bias of the

Q: The conflict between the pro-American government of Fuad Siniora and the opposition led by Hezbollah keeps increasing and has claimed its first dead. Will it grow into a civil war?

A: The conflict may indeed grow into an all-encompassing civil war or small local civil wars. People like me who have witnessed the beginning of the last civil war will not find a new civil war an impossible outcome; what is lacking now is a mere bus, similar to the one that the Phalange attacked on April 13, 1975, killing many Palestinian refugees. Tensions are now extremely high, both on the sectarian and political levels; poverty prevails; youth constantly emigrate; local provocateurs abound; Israel, the US, and Iran are ready to provide arms to the warring factions; Syria may be feeling cornered by the “International Tribunal” investigating the assassination of ex-PM Rafiq Al-Hariri on Feb 14, 2005; and, perhaps most importantly, is the fact that the present young generation did not witness the old wars and may think that a new war may finally solve the problem. I firmly believe that as long as the forces carrying a secular democratic project do not assume a leading role in the present conflict (and they don’t), a war, be it protracted or recurrent in the form of assassinations and explosions every once in a while, is the only natural outcome of the present tensions.

Q: The opposition seems to rally the majority of the population behind itself. Can you describe the composition of the opposition?

A: It is primarily composed of Hezbollah, the Free Patriotic Current (General Aoun), the Marada (ex-minister Franjiyyeh), and Amal (Speaker of Parliament Berri). There are also smaller groups at the margin, such as: The People’s Movement (Nasserite-leftist led by Wakim), Democratic Popular Party (communist led by Hamzeh), supporters of Wi’am Wahhab (a Druze ex-minister opposing Jumblatt), Omar Karameh (ex-prime minister), and Kamal Shatila (Sunni Nasserite). But at least 90% of the opposition, I would say, are supporters of Hezbollah and Aoun. The LCP is not part of the opposition, officially; or rather communist supporters do not participate in the sit-ins in downtown Beirut.

Q: What are the goals of the opposition and especially Hezbollah?

A: The goals have changed within the last 2 months, depending on the role of the regional players, among other things. When the 6 ministers resigned, the reason they provided was in protest against the government’s decision to approve, in haste, the draft for the International Tribunal (investigating the assassination of Hariri). The opposition claimed that Siniora and his allies did not allow it enough time to translate and discuss the draft within its ranks within 2 or 3 days only. The reality, however, is that the opposition knew that the draft was completely flawed: It constitutes a flagrant infringement on Lebanon’s sovereignty as well as that of its judicial system. For example, the draft does not acknowledge the Lebanese court’s decision to pardon a suspect in accordance with the Lebanese Constitution; it also bestows on the International tribunal the right to put suspects under trial even if they were already tried by the Lebanese court; etc… Furthermore, in view of the recent history of the Security Council, particularly the direct control the US exercises within it, the opposition is well-justified in suspecting that the aforementioned Tribunal is but another tool to implement American justice against its enemies. Note that no international tribunal was called for trying Saddam — a mere special Iraqi court sufficed. Moreover the US refuses to be held accountable in any international tribunal for its extra-humanitarian conduct in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo.

In any case, after the ministers (5 Shiites and one Greek Orthodox) resigned from the cabinet, the opposition started calling for a blocking third, later to be euphemistically renamed the guaranteeing third. This demand underlines the opposition’s right to have enough ministers to veto any major decision adopted by the majority within the cabinet. The opposition then started accusing the prime minister of treason during the Israeli invasion of July 2006 and called for his immediate resignation. Later, however, the opposition went back to its original demand: a national unity government with Siniora at its head! Afterwards, many opposition leaders started calling for new parliamentary elections ahead of their scheduled time in 2009 claiming rightly that the opposition now commands more popularity than what is reflected in the existing parliament (around 45% seats, a percentage that by far exceeds what it currently has in the cabinet), and that early elections are needed because the present government has betrayed its allies (the opposition with whom it had allied itself in 2005) and breached the Taif accord when it refused to dissolve itself after the representatives of a major community (the Shiites) resigned.

In response, the Feb 14 Bloc * (alternatively called the ruling forces) asserts that it was the Shiite ministers who willingly or upon the request of the Syrian regime chose to resign, that the elections of 2005 were democratically held as the opposition itself admits, and that the opposition in that year chose again, willingly or upon the Syrian request, to ally itself with Jumblatt, Hariri, and Geagea in fear of possible sectarian war.

Q: How can you explain that the majority of the Maronite Christians sect, which historically used to be Western allies, are with the anti-American opposition? It the coalition between Hezbollah and Michel Aoun’s as well as Suliman Franjiyyeh’s movement stable or something only superficial?

A: The new position of the Maronites has to do with two major factors: First the charismatic figure of Michel Aoun, who has acquired enormous respect within the Christian community after 15 years of exile following the Syrian siege and shelling of the presidential palace and after conducting an admirable civil resistance against pro-Syrian successive governments in Lebanon. Second, the hegemonic practices of Aoun’s old allies, the Feb 14th Block. These have constantly refused to support his desire, while he was still allied with them, to run for presidency of the republic either because, as he claims, he might expose their corruption, theft, and direct responsibility for the $41-45 billions in national debts… or because of their legitimate fear that he, the ex-army commander, might prevent them from exercising their own hegemony on the state.

As to the stability of the coalition of the oppositional forces, I think it is quite stable for the moment. However there are serious fears that any Iranian-American agreement could end the tensions between some figures within the opposition and government. Furthermore, what helps the opposition hold together is that all its parts stand firmly now against the US policy. One wonders if that will remain the case, however, in view of the fact that Aoun used to be a major supporter of UN Security Council resolution 1559 calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah, and had actually met with many Zionist Congressmen and women in 2003 to help issue the Syria Accountability Act.

Q: The Druze leader Walid Djumblat used to be the leader of the left and was an long-time ally of Damascus. How you explain his 180° turn? Is there any Druze force with the opposition?

A: Opportunism. He is the epitome of opportunism and arrivism. He now falsely feels that Bush’s and Perez’s New Middle East Project is about to succeed, and that the Syrian regime, which he now, after 30 years of utter silence, claims killed his father 30 years ago, is witnessing its last days after the collapse of the Iraqi Ba’thist regime in 2003. So he jumped on the American wagon hoping to be among the major beneficiaries of the New Middle East, along the winners of the mini-states inside the divided Iraq. I don’t believe him when he said he recently felt a “sahwat damir” (a revival in conscience) after decades of propagating Syrian tutelage in Lebanon. Unfortunately he is by far the strongest man inside his community, but this community itself is merely 8% or so of the population at large. He tries to boost his position by allying himself with Hariri, who remains the strongest in the Sunni community, and Geagea, a minor player who, nevertheless, thrives on militaristic strifes similar to the ones we’ve recently seen. He has also succeeded in splitting the LCP by buying the allegiance of the Druzes within its ranks.

Q: Did the opposition score a point with its recent general strike? Or does Hezbollah’s call not to respond to provocations indicate that they want to relent somewhat and the toppling of Siniora has reached out of sight?

A: I don’t think Hezbollah scored anything after the huge demonstration held on December 1. The demo showed how popular the opposition was, but the actions it took afterwards were not that fruitful. The opposition was trapped, stuck in a catch 21 situation: It could not invade the Serailles, where Siniora’s cabinet is partially besieged, since that could signal the beginning of a sectarian war, especially now that the prime minister became viewed by many, especially the Mufti of the Republic, as representing the Sunnis. And it could not abandon the sit-ins in downtown Beirut since this could be viewed as a fatal defeat to the opposition. I think the opposition had imagined that the protests in front of the Seraille would force the cabinet to fall apart before Christmas 2006. But the International Community and the Arab regimes (minus Syria) were all in support of the government. I think that both parties now, the loyalists and the opposition, are awaiting the outcome of the Saudi-Iranian talks, which both hope would give them at least a portion of their demands: a guaranteeing third for the opposition and maybe early parliamentary elections, while Siniora stays in power and secures the opposition’s consent to an amended version of the International tribunal’s Draft.

Q: The international troops deployed in Lebanon are declared to be peace forces. But aren’t they helping a government which has lost its democratic legitimacy and turned into an Western puppet thus becoming a driving factor of the conflict?

The UNIFIL forces are there to protect Israel. That’s what the German Counsellor declared back in October. Otherwise, UNIFIL should have deployed on both sides of the Lebanese/Israeli borders, as Robert Fisk (no fan of Hezbollah) noticed. Now both Israel and Hezbollah needed the war to stop: The war was not getting Israel anywhere closer to defeating its foe, and Hezbollah after 34 days of war felt pressure on all fronts (particularly with the refugees from the south settled in areas not very welcoming, to say the least. So an amended 1701 that allowed UNIFIL to help the Lebanese Army deploy in the south was deemed good for both warring parties. However UNIFIL started to raise suspicions amongst the people in the south as well as Hezbollah’s leadership: The Spanish battalion searched houses and arrested people; French troops abstained from attacking Israeli warplanes that flew above their headquarters; Israelis continue to breach Lebanese sovereignty on a daily basis without the UNIFIL lifting a finger. With the current western support for the Siniora government, the presence of UNIFIL in the south is certainly seen as a moral boost to say the least to that government.

Q: Are you for the withdrawal of the troops? Wouldn’t that encourage Israel to attack again?

I never trusted the UN, especially after the US started assuming total hegemony over its Security Council. I don’t think UNIFIL offer any permanent or real protection to Lebanon. In 1982 they stood and watched while the Israeli army invaded Lebanon. They now do the same. When Israel and the US decide to attack they will attack, and UNIFIL, once again, will stand and watch. Would that encourage me to support their presence?

End of January 2007

* Feb 14, 2005 is when Hariri was assassinated. March 14 is when the anti-Syrians (including Aoun) gathered commemorating Hariri and calling for Syria’s withdrawal. Later, Aoun left the group known as March 14 Bloc and started calling them Feb 14. He still prides himself as an important component of March 14; it’s the others, he claims, that betrayed the principles.