Deadlock in Beirut
April 10, 2006
by Nibras Kazimi
The next "dialogue" session among Lebanon's political bosses has been postponed until much later this month, bringing welcome news to Beirut's motorists and those who fear the outbreak of sectarian strife.
Whenever the heads of Lebanon's six major factions get together to sort out their latest spate of feuds—this time over who gets to appoint a president for the republic—on the neutral grounds of parliament in Nejmeh Square, traffic between the three lobes of Beirut grinds to a halt as everyone scrambles to find a way around this central knot of heightened security. Six of these sessions have been held since early last month. Traffic jams reflect what is going inside the chamber where the heavyweights are supposed to reach accord: everyone knows that things are at a standstill, but everyone hopes that this charade will keep going for much longer since forcing an outcome will spell violence.
Of the six, one heads an internationally recognized terrorist organization, another is a contender for the president's job that he has pursued for 17 years and was willing at one point to lob artillery fire against those who stood in his way, and a third is a political neophyte whose eyes are glazed most of the time, fueling speculation in rumor-rife Beirut. The other three may be even worse. For all of Lebanon's sophistication, human potential, and cosmopolitanism, the individual Lebanese is a willing droid in the militias of these sad excuses for leadership, and will gladly follow them to the end if that is in the interest of one's particular sectarian or religious denomination. Looming on the sidelines of this "dialogue" are the interests of Syria on one side, and those of the America, France and Saudi Arabia on the other. Too add a further complication, an American diplomat, Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, has gone native and is playing the macabre game of Lebanese politics as a Lebanese entity, rather than as a representative of American interests, giving promises and access in cavalier fashion without a clearly thought-out policy coming from Washington. Out of this motley assortment of clashing personalities, loyalties and agendas, a much awaited accommodation over the destiny of Lebanon is being expected.
It will not happen. And that is a good thing: as things stand, one side will win, and one side will lose, if the political equation in Lebanon is tampered with. Whichever side loses will go off to sulk in the corner awaiting the opportune moment to strike back. Such a moment may come very soon as Al Qaeda nests in Lebanon and seeks to sow an atmosphere of chaos, as increasing indications show. So the best that can be hoped for is a long drawn-out draw, while tempers are allowed to subside. The last several times the contenders walked away in a huff from the table resulted in stretches of civil war that altogether ran for 15 years. Near the rebuilt downtown of Beirut where parliament holds its sessions is a stark reminder of darker days: the burnt-out and pockmarked hulk of the former Holiday Inn Hotel stands out like a rectangular tombstone over the capital, marking the fact that for a very long time, the Lebanese went at each other's throats with bloodcurdling malice.
All those meeting at the roundtable realize the simplest fact about Lebanon: the volatile mix of angry and vengeful sects and religions is ever ready to blow, and all it needs is an aggravated political situation and a spark. Since the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri some 400 days ago, as marked by digital counters all over Lebanon, the country has been roiled by a political crisis that may seem simple on the face of things - variously packaged as a drive to push the last vestiges of Syrian occupation out - but conceals ominous outcomes such as a sectarian clash between Shias and Sunnis.
The sad story of Lebanon is one of competing birthrates, fear and a very superficial understanding of democracy. The numerically dominant sect interprets the system to give it privileges and rights over other sects, and this has been the situation encased in the unwritten national charter that was reached as a gentlemen's agreement between Maronite Christian and Sunni Muslim political chiefs in 1943. But chiefdom in later years fell to ambitious adventurers who were not gentlemanlike in behavior. Lebanon was set up when the Maronites were the majority, but dwindling birthrates and immigration compelled the Muslims to try to renegotiate the charter to their advantage, and when talks broke down, bullets were employed to bring the numbers of rival sects down.
Today, the Shias are the plurality, and that will give them an edge of in the coming decade. But a closer look at other parameters suggests that another group is ascendant, the Sunnis, and there are those such as Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi and Al Qaeda who are interested in opening up a franchise in Lebanon, and scaring the heck out of the Shias and Christians. Why would Al Qaeda be interested in a place like Lebanon, full of quarrelsome non-Muslim or heterodox minorities and a penchant for loose values? The Lebanese civil war was sparked as the Palestinians sought a margin of chaos from which to operate against Israel. They were a catalyst in an already unstable situation. Zarqawi is interested in Lebanon as a staging ground to bring down the Syrian regime and install a militant Islamic sultanate in its stead that would fight Israel and lay the groundwork for a full-fledged caliphate. He also sees the Sunni birthrate as a recruiting pool for future generations of jihadists with an axe to grind against hated next-door neighbors such as Shias and Christians.
Of particular use is the piece of real-estate known as the Western Beka'a, a hilly landscape seasonally inhabited by wealthy expatriate Sunnis who have the funds and temperament to be good patrons of Al Qaeda's goals. This is an island of Sunnis surrounded on all sides by hostile sects, apparently engendering a deep sense of embattled orthodoxy. One of its more famous sons was Ziad Jarrah, one of the principal September 11 terrorists. From here Al Qaeda would be in striking range of Israeli settlements, and thus would enjoy periodic "good press" among Muslim masses whenever their shocking tactics had gone too far. And through the valleys to the east, they can access the environs of Damascus lying only a short distance away.
Another interesting sight is the abject poverty in the Sunni towns to the north of Lebanon that are bursting with children and teenagers. Over there, fundamentalism is apparent in the dress code and the numerous Islamic charities that provide services such as schools and clinics. Although the rhetoric of disenfranchisement and poverty was traditionally the realm of Shia politics, a whole swath of Lebanon dominated by Sunnis languishes in a state far worse than the Shia "ghetto" of south Beirut or the Shia towns in the south or east of the country. It is those Sunnis who are showing up as fighters in Iraq, or who are now coming under increasing suspicion as the perpetrators of Hariri's murder.
As the politicians quibble, the badly woven fabric of the Lebanese state comes under further strain. If one side pulls hard enough to force a breakthrough in the political deadlock, then the fabric will tear. This eventuality will drive one side or another to arms and violence, further expanding the margins of chaos. It is exactly in these margins that Al Qaeda seeks to operate. The talks being held in Beirut will lead to nowhere, which is a far better destination than an Islamic sultanate ruled by Zarqawi.
Mr. Kazimi, an Iraqi writer and visiting scholar at Hudson Institute, writes a weekly column on the Middle East for The New York Sun. He can be contacted at email@example.com