1 August 2008

Hizbullah’s existential dilemna, part II

Posted in Comment tagged , , , , at 12:03 pm by lilithhope

This is a piece that i wrote after the July’s prisoner swap which questions the existence of Hizbullah in a post-resistance frame.

I submitted to a few online mags, but no-one wanted it because it is apparently ‘too speculative’… Behold, the bitterness of rejection!

Admittedly, i accept that critique, and acknowledge my weak (read: non-existant) journalistic foundations and tendencies to be more imaginative/conceptual than hard-core-factual. I nevertheless think that some points raised are important, but check it out and see for yourselves:

Hizbullah’s existential dilemna

Two weeks ago saw return of the last Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails to Lebanon, an event that was greeted with jubilant celebrations all over the country, from the Israeli-Lebanese border to Beirut’s southern suburbs, Al Dahiyyeh, which were transformed into a veritable fairground of festivities: swelling tides of proud yellow and green dotted with crests of white and red; the sharp crackle of and pop of fireworks as they briefly cast the shadows of flags on the faces of those assembled; the occasional rattle of celebratory gunfire, despite it being previously discouraged; and the nearly-tangible sense of euphoria infiltrating the narrow spaces between the tens of thousands that had gathered for the occasion. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the chairman of Hizbullah, made his first public appearance since July 2006 and addressed the heaving, boisterous crowd before him by saying that “The true, original and permanent identity of our region’s peoples and our nation is that of resistance”.

 

 

The popular elation was reflected in the highest echelons of the government and hailed as a national victory for Lebanon by politicians from across the spectrum, including Nasrallah’s arch-rivals Parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, whose latest reconciliatory comments are far removed from the tone he struck earlier this year by accusing Hizbullah of being a “totalitarian party”. No measure was spared by the government in showing their support for the prisoners’ release: a national holiday was declared and the returning prisoners receiving a Presidential welcoming at Beirut International airport, during which President Michel Suleiman proclaimed “Your return is a new victory and the future in your presence will be a path through which we will achieve sovereignty on out land and freedom for our people”.

 

 

Wednesday’s prisoner swap saw the return of the remains of 199 Palestinian and Lebanese fighters who had died in operations on Israeli soil and the last 5 Lebanese prisoners being held in Israeli jails, the most famous of whom is Samir Qantar, renown for both the intense emotional reaction to his crime, which involved the violent killing of a four-year-old girl, and the fact that he was the longest Arab prisoner to be held in Israel. In exchange, Hizbullah returned the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, captured by Hizbullah in July 2006 in a raid which sparked a war that claimed the lives of over 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers. The swap deal proved controversial in Israel, and the solemn atmosphere that prevailed there upon the return of the bodies of the captured soldiers and the remains others killed during the 2006 war stood in sharp contrast to the festivities in the Lebanese capital, which were widely criticised in the international media as the glorification of murderers.

 

 

But for many in Lebanon and the wider Arab world, Hizbullah had every reason to celebrate the return of the prisoners, claiming that it was both a symbolic and strategic victory. Symbolically, it was the final stage in the chain of events that sparked the 2006 July War; while strategically it proved the effectiveness of a well-organized armed resistance and precise guerrilla warfare tactics in achieving political ends, especially when compared to the sheer inefficiency of the docile diplomacy currently being pursued by other Arab countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, and Mahmood Abbas’ Palestinian Authority.

 

 

However, it would seem that the fanfare is now over and everyone has woken up the morning after with an emotional hangover from the previous night’s sentimental indulgences. Against the background of several factors, including the continuing process to implement the Doha agreement by achieving national unity, of which one of the components is a framework for Hizbullah’s disarmament and incorporation of its military capacities into the national army and current speculation as to a possible Israeli withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms, some serious issues related to Hizbullah’s very raison d’être as an Islamic resistance movement invite scrutiny.

 

 

On the one hand, the recent prisoner swap was the last of a string of successes for the group in its self-proclaimed task of rejecting occupation, tyranny and foreign interests in Lebanon. Prior successes were the liberation of most of Lebanon’s territory from a twenty year-long Israeli occupation, conducting a successful prisoner exchange in 2004 and shattering the myth of an undefeatable Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). 

 

But on the other hand, now that all Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails have been released and there is talk of a diplomatic solution to the Shebaa farms, criteria that priorly justified armed resistance, will Hizbullah now be struggling to legitimise the possession of its arms, and more generally its very existence as a resistance movement? For Samir Qantar, the answer to that as yet unspoken question was definitely ‘no’. During a speech made at a welcome rally held upon his return to his hometown of Aabey, east of Beirut, Qantar stated that “Whoever believes that liberating Shebaa Farms would put an end to the resistance is deluded. This enemy would not leave us alone”. To support his point, he drew on several examples: “Look at the way they treated the people who signed treaties with them […] Look at what they did to former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat,” he added, indirectly accusing Israel of aggravating the causes that led to the Palestinian leader’s death in November 2004. Qantar was adamant about the continuing relevance of the resistance: “The resistance would persist after (liberating) Shebaa Farms and after and after that”.

 

Admittedly, there is significant weight to the argument that even if Israel ceases to occupy Lebanese territory, its mere existence as a state with an ideological grounding in and a historic record of territorial expansion render it a de facto threat to Lebanese national sovereignty. Yet is that threat, that potential of  future violence, enough to legitimise a continued, armed, Hizbullah resistance, as opposed to a non-religiously motivated, non-sectarian national army who would play the role of protectors? It seems that to say so, to agree that Hizbullah’s armed militia wing is still relevant in a Lebanon post-Israeli occupation, would to be to shift the discourse of protection to one of prevention, and, consequently, possibly pre-emption. And that last stage, pre-emptiveness, would be highly volatile simply because the lines of ‘aggressor’ and ‘aggressed’ become so blurred that the claims of oppression, repression, persecution or intimidation that inform and justify resistance are turned on their heads.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite the rhetoric of national unity used by ever-shifting politicians and the positive publicity generated by this latest victory, the question of whether or not Hizbullah’s prioritization of resistance is compatible with the economic, social and political sustainability and flourishing of the Lebanese nation remains a pressing one. For example, outside the frame of resistance, what sort of direction does Hizbullah offer for Lebanon as a whole? Does Hizbullah’s existence as an Islamic resistance movement offer viable vision and direction for the diverse Lebanese polity? Or does perpetuating domestic resistance as part of a broader Arab, Islamic or anti-imperialist agenda marginalize other pressing social, economic and political concerns of the Lebanese?

 

 

Nasrallah has always suppoted the Palestinian resistance and has recently voiced his solidarity with the current resistance movement against the occupying American forces in Iraq. The extent to which such pan-Arab anti-imperialist sentiment is peddled by Hizbullah to its supporters was manifested in banners that were hung on the road to Aabey, which read: “From Palestine to Iraq to Lebanon, the resistance is victorious”. Reciprocally, other resistance movements perceive of Hizbullah’s most recent success as setting a precedent for the type of strategy that are effective means of attaining certain goals. For example, Hamas released a statement in response to the prisoners’ releases saying that it strengthened its own campaign for the release of hundreds of Palestinians being held in Israeli jails in return for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. And when Hizbullah Cabinet Minister Mohammed Fneish states: “We all agree that the enemy understands only the language of force”, there is no illusion as to the wide-ranging implications of his statement for resistance movements in the region.

 

 

But the history of Lebanon as a beacon for anti-imperialist struggles is not a bright one, and one only has to cast one’s mind back to the humiliating evacuation of Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters from Beirut in August 1982 to remember that using Lebanese soil as a platform for fighting regional battles has been met with much internal resistance. Obviously, Hizbullah is Lebanese, and therefore musters much more national legitimacy than the PLO, but Hizbullah’s appeal to solidarity with Arab or Islamic resistance causes are nevertheless met with heightened weariness in many Lebanese circles. Understandably so, given the massive material and psychological damage, not to mention the tragic civilian death tolls, of both the Civil War years and the 2006 war.

 

 

Many Lebanese are, quite simply, eager to live peaceful lives in which they can access education and health services, provide for their families and access stimulating employment opportunities. In today’s Lebanon, such basic demands are immensely problematic, with unemployment standing at some 20% and social strife being magnified by rising oil and food prices. Encountered with such a sad state of domestic affairs, the question that arises is to what extent resistance should be made a priority of the state. To secure one’s borders and prevent external aggression is one matter, but to jeopardize livelihoods in the name of an ideological commitment to supra-national causes is a very different matter.

 

 

Consequently, one is compelled to ask whether or not Hizbullah’s focus on resistance is perpetuated at the expense of solving other very real national social, political and economic issues. For example, while  Hizbullah does serve the vital role of representing the Lebanese Shi’a, during the recent endeavours to form a Cabinet Hizbullah was offered three seats but only accepted one, the Labour Ministry, preferring to allocate the other two seats to its allies in the opposition. Consequently, Hizbullah’s clout in the current government is considerably reduced, which could be considered as the party not fulfilling its political responsibility to adequately represent its constituency. The reason for Hizbullah’s choice to minimize its part in the government could be interpreted as a desire to be as separate as possible from governmental functioning and leave the notoriously dirty work of Lebanese politics to its opposition allies. Maintaining such a separation reinforces the perception that Hizbullah is a group that is not tarnished by the shady goings on of the political elite, and thereby preserves its ideological integrity. But there again, should a pragmatic political agenda, including representation and participation, be subsumed to conceptual purity?

 

Another example of the Hizbullah’s prioritization of resistance over domestic issues is to note that the catalysts for last May’s violent clashes in Beirut, in which government and opposition forces took to the streets in 3 days of street battles that left over 60 dead, were a strike and demonstration organised by a national trade union in order to pressure the government into raising the minimum wage. But the demonstration never took place, an instead the instability initiated by the strike was used as a springboard to launch a greater civil disobedience campaign which quickly snowballed into clashes between government and opposition supporters. Famously, the signing of the Doha agreement put an end to those clashes, even though unrest and street violence currently continue in Tripoli. Yet in the midst of May’s violence, politicking, factional muscle-shows and the subsequent high-profile international conference, the issue of the minimum wage was silenced, and remains unsolved to this day.

 

 

There is no doubt that Hizbullah’s social record of compensating for the state’s dire lack of providing for its population, especially Lebanon’s most disenfranchised citizens, the Shi’a, is commendable. Their social welfare programmes boast successful education facilities, health services, orphanages and support for the homeless. Verily, such programmes do provide a blueprint for welfare services that should be provided by the state to all sections of society, regardless of religion or class. But, so far, Hizbullah has not indicated that it intends to provide any non-Shi’a Lebanese with anything more than a psychological sense of national pride. True to the sectarian system that precedes it, has not extended the hand of welfare beyond the constituency from which it obtains the most support. Logistically, one could assume that if the political will were present, Hizbullah could extend its social services to other marginalised groups in Lebanon, even possibly migrant workers or refugees. But Hizbullah falls into the same trap as every other Lebanese political party of spouting nationalist rhetoric but lacking in pragmatic non-sectarian action.

 

 

In the wake of the recent events, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Hizbullah remains a very powerful force in Lebanon and the region as a whole. But, when one considers the long-term direction of the movement and its viability as a political force in Lebanon outside a framework of resistance, many conceptual and pragmatic lacunae appear. The hope would be that some sort of agreement could be reached whereby the positive aspects of Hizbullah, including its integrity, social welfare programmes and effective military might, would be integrated into the state apparatus, and thereby somehow diffuse the corruption and inefficiency of the present system.

 

But we cannot forget that the spectre of confessionalism hangs over this country like a plague, infecting any hope for equal opportunity and social justice and fuelling a narrow-minded, interest-driven politics in which internal enemies are as much, if not more, reviled than foreign threats. It is within this context that Hizbullah will seek to preserve its own interests as an Islamic resistance movement, perhaps to the detriment of the imagined Lebanese nation. 

 

 

 

 

23 June 2008

Back to the edge of the precipice

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 2:03 pm by lilithhope

After sporadic clashes in the Bekka over the past two weeks that claimed 3 lives, the violence moved to Tripoli yesterday and, despite efforts to resolve the conflict last night, continues today. So far, six people have died and over 40 have been wounded.

As the government is still no closer to forming a cabinet and the violence continues to escalate, the ‘peace’ that was celebrated so dramatically a mere 4 weeks ago is dissolving before everyone’s eyes. Like a transparent band-aid placed over an infected, festering blister, the Doha agreement is revealing itself to be completely ineffective. 

There is no sign of the violence in Tripoli subsiding, but there is no doubt that, with the memory of bloodshed so fresh in so many minds, everyone here in Beirut is hoping that it will not spread.

For minute-by-minute updates on the events as they unfold, check here.

13 June 2008

Karim Makdisi on post-Doha Lebanon

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 9:26 am by lilithhope

This is a really interesting interview with Karim Makdisi, a professor in the Department of Political Studies and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut, in which he analyzes post-Doha Lebanon. I’ve copied some of the most interesting bits below, but you can find the full interview here.

“Poverty has risen dramatically in Lebanon in recent years, especially in areas outside of Beirut, in northern Lebanon, in southern Lebanon, in the Bekka valley and also in certain Beirut suburbs. Poverty has risen tremendously. State services from electricity, to phones, to water have all suffered also. Today there are many electricity cuts, also many water shortages and the summer season hasn’t yet began where traditionally there has always been regular water shortages and electricity cuts, so in this regard many are expecting a severe summer.

Also Lebanon is experiencing an environmental catastrophe today, both resulting from the Israeli attack in 2006 but also more generally an environmental disaster brought upon Lebanon over the past years. Lebanon’s coastline has been almost entirely privatized or destroyed due to pollution. Lebanon’s mountains are also being privatized. Many forests in Lebanon have been cut up. Air pollution is very, very high, while multiple important international environmental agreements have not been implemented in Lebanon.

All these major issues haven’t been addressed by either side. Even the opposition, including Hizballah, except on the margins doesn’t really mention or talk about the economic crisis. Actually this latest conflict covered up a very important issue in Lebanon.

Trade unions in Lebanon had called for strikes across the country in response to the unemployment crisis, the economic crisis, the farce of a minimum wage which still is only a couple hundred dollars a month — nothing in Lebanon. All these important issues were to be raised through a general strike. However, these issues were superseded by a larger political fight that happened […]

Each time Lebanon faces a political crisis, each time that Lebanese politicians are in a major disagreement they have had to travel outside of the country. This occurred with the Taif Agreement in Saudi Arabia at the end of the civil war in 1990. This phenomenon occurred again recently with the leaders traveling to France to negotiate, also traveling to many other countries in recent years for political discussions. Never holding serious talks or negotiations in Lebanon.

Now Lebanon’s politicians have traveled to Doha, Qatar to agree on something which is allegedly a purely Lebanese internal affair. However, this external negotiation process certainly illustrates something fundamentally wrong with the political situation here in Lebanon. No mechanism is built into the Lebanese political system to resolve disputes, to resolve disagreements within the political class, internally within Lebanon. Lebanon’s constitution doesn’t provide for it, the political process doesn’t provide for it […]

Hizballah has provided many social services, they are very, very good in this respect, however they are mainly directed to communities loyal to the party. In other words, their social services to a large extent reinforce sectarian divisions in the country, Hizballah has catered to communities that support them because the state has often been absent within these communities not just today but for decades.

A real economic alternative would cater not only to one community but to the entire country across sectarian divisions: building national civil society organizations that can provide to everybody regardless of their sect or location in Lebanon, building a national civil society that is able to influence public policy, remain independent and be critical towards the government.”

 

27 May 2008

Mulling over the Doha Agreement, ice cream and all

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 12:53 pm by lilithhope

For those of you unfamiliar with the specificities of the Doha Agreement, here is some ‘at a glance’ info:

1)Election of consensus candidate Michel Suleiman as president
2) Majority to get 16 cabinet seats and choose prime minister
3) Opposition to get 11 cabinet seats and veto power
4) Three cabinet seats to be nominated by president
5) The use of weapons in internal conflicts is to be banned
6) Opposition protest camps in central Beirut are to be removed
7) New law to divide country into smaller electoral districts
So far, two of these, the dismantling of the protest camps and the election of Suleiman, have been accomplished. 2/7, not bad considering less than a week has passed since te document was adopted. And Saad Hariri is expected to be elected as Prime Minister very soon, so that’s 3.
The thornier issues will prove to be the electoral constituencies and the question of Hizbullah’s arms. On the complexities of the former, check out this interesting table and map which compares past Beirut election laws with the present proposal (thanks zentor). In a way, it makes one think that the confessional system that exists in Lebanon will inevitably generate increased sectarianism: every aspect of political life is inextricably linked to one’s religion, and therefore any political manoeuvre or expression relies on a consolidation of that religious identity.
And in terms of Hizbullah’s weapons, Nasrallah made clear in his speech last night (see my post yesterday), which marked the 8th anniversary of the end of the ISraeli occupation of southern Lebanon, that the Islamic resistance  is de facto DEFINED by its weapons, to the extent that those who oppose its right to arm as those who oppose its very existence:
“He is trying to show that the battle and the power struggle in Beirut was not a Sunni-Shia clash – it was simply a power struggle between those who support the resistance and the other, who do not believe in the resistance’s weapons
The fact that Hizb’s right to weapons is being framed as an existential matter is worrying, because any attempt at rethinking the issue will be seen as a threat to Hizb’s very being. While at the same time, it allows other factions in Lebanon to use the same rhetoric, one of self-defence’, in order to legitimize their own weilding of weaponry…
It’s tricky, hence my aforementioned skepticism. I have therefore vowed to make the most of downtown while it is still open by eating Haagen Dazs every day, in the fear that discontent will inevitably arise and the protesters will return, and I shall once again be barred from the delectable delights of that coyly opportunist retailer.