The Lebanese government took the first steps towards dismantling Hizbullah’s vital communications network. The opposition closed roads and demonstrated. Pro-government thugs shot at civilians, as they have done many times before. This time, the opposition responded decisively. Disciplined Hizbullah fighters and their unruly allies from Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party quickly took control of West Beirut. Hundreds of Hariri’s Future militia surrendered. In the Shuf, pro-opposition and pro-government Druze forces fought it out, with the opposition winning. The north was messier. In Tripoli the Sunnis fought, Hariri supporters against Omar Karami’s opposition-linked group. Future men ransacked and burnt offices of the Ba’ath Party, of Ayatullah Fadlallah, Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, and the Syrian Social Nationalists. (This party, by the way, is not Syrian but ‘Greater Syrian’; while the Ba’ath envisages a union of all Arab countries, the SSNP wants a state covering Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Kuwait and – believe it or not – Cyprus, a Fertile Crescent state.) At the time of writing, things have calmed down in Tripoli.
So far, it looks like a clear victory for the opposition and a resounding defeat for the government and its Saudi and American backers. Hariri and Junblatt have been humiliated. Sinyura said he would let the army decide on Hizbullah’s communications network. The army accepted the offer and promptly declared that the resistance would be protected. It also announced that the Hizbullah-linked head of airport security would be reinstated. The government (if it is still the government) must be bitter that the army, which it had heralded as the symbol of a neutral state, has shown more understanding for the opposition than for the leaders who provoked it.
Hizbullah has acted with its usual intelligence and restraint. As soon as the opposition took control of pro-government areas it handed them over to the army. It did not perform a coup, as it so easily could have done. It has been careful to include its Sunni and Druze allies in the military action, and to work in concert with its Christian allies politically. All that it has demanded is a return to the status quo before the government orders threatening the resistance’s communications network. It has not even mentioned the third of cabinet seats that it has been negotiating for months. The Shia community, which makes up between 30 and 40% of the people, currently receives only 21% of parliamentary seats. Rather than push for an end to this injustice, Hizbullah is trying to soothe tempers and establish a new consensus around the resistance.
Still, the presence of militia on the streets once again is heartbreaking, and will make consensus very difficult to achieve. There are reports of Amal men entering homes to beat Hariri supporters, stealing jewellery, and chanting sectarian insults. The Future TV building was burnt by SSNP supporters. An Amal supporter turned his fire on a Sunni funeral crowd, killing at least two. And the ‘clean hands’ purity of the resistance has been lost. Hizbullah is the only militia which did not commit massacres against other communities during the country’s civil war. The actions of the last few days may have been necessary, and Hizbullah itself (as opposed to its sometimes embarrassing allies) behaved in a disciplined manner, but Lebanon has now seen Hizbullah using military force against other Lebanese. If sectarianism proves to be stronger than sense in the Sunni community (and the Saudi-run media will do all it can to whip up hatred – al-Arabiyya’s coverage, for instance, has been appallingly one-sided), or if Hizbullah now makes even one mistake, a short term victory for resistance Lebanon could become a defeat, and bankers’ Lebanon could return in force. Or there could be a return of blood and chaos.
There have already been scenes which replay the civil war. Future militiamen lined up and murdered a group of migrant Syrian workers. Junblatt’s militia kidnapped and executed at least two Hizbullah supporters. These are the ‘moderate democratic’ pro-Western forces the US has been funding and training in Jordan (alongside the Badr militia calling itself the Iraqi army and the Dahlan militia pretending to be Palestinian security). Hariri, Sinyura and Junblatt have recognised the current balance of forces, but haven’t recognised the justice of the opposition’s stand. Whether or not they call on their fighters to destabilise the new set-up will depend on the orders they receive from Saudi Arabia and the US. Here, the signs are not good.
Aside from general destruction, the Bush administration has failed in everything it has tried in the Middle East, and may now be getting desperate. The Lebanese events are very reminiscent of Gaza, where America (via the Abrams Plan) armed and then incited its own faction against the resistance. The resistance tried its best to establish a national government but in the end, after grievous provocation, took direct control of Gaza.
1.3 billion dollars of American money was spent propping up the Sinyura government, and not only money. A former head of Mossad observed yesterday that three years of work by Arab and Western intelligence agencies in Beirut had been lost in one night. This is a good thing, surely. Where will we be in a month’s time?