Report from Lebanon

The June 2 car bomb explosion in the Christian Beirut neighborhood of Ashrafieh that killed prominent anti-Syrian journalist Samir Kassir comes as an international team is investigating the February assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Anti-Syrian leaders were quick to make a link between the two killings. Syria denied involvement, but Hariri’s son and political heir, Saad Hariri, said the same people were behind both assassinations. “And God knows what’s coming,” he added. (AP, June 4)

The explosion also comes amid Lebanese parliamentary elections that the opposition hopes to win, ending control of the legislature by pro-Syrian politicians. Saad Hariri has won the first round, but numerous obstacles remain before Bush can chalk Lebanon up as another victory for “freedom on the march”–most notably, what to do about the Syria-backed Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, which doubles as a political party and a powerful armed militia (and is on the State Department’s list of “terrorist organizations”). Our correspondent in Beirut, Bilal El-Amine, sends these observations on the current juncture:

Hizbullah and the Beirut Poll

June 2, 2005

Armed resistance

A dramatic series of events in the last few days. First, on the 5th anniversary of the liberation of southern Lebanon, the irresistibly charismatic leader of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah, strikes a defiant tone saying that it is “madness” to forcibly disarm the resistance. He revealed for the first time that they have thousands of small rockets (“more than 12,000,” according to Nasrallah) aimed at northern Israel in case they get any ideas about invading again. He mocked proposals to take away the heavy weaponry or storing it somewhere, but left the door open for negotiations saying that Hizbullah is prepared for a national dialogue that will reassure anxious Lebanese factions who fear these weapons will one day be used against them.

Unfortunately for those seeking to disarm Hizbullah, the group has an exemplary record of not committing a single provocation or massacre against other Lebanese. All other parties to the civil war, including latecomer General Michel Aoun, were probably responsible for one atrocity or another. There were dire predictions, as I recall, that in the wake of the retreating Israeli army from the South, Hizbullah would commit unspeakable acts against Christians there given their close collaboration with the occupation. In fact, Hizbullah’s actions were impeccable; I don’t recall a single act of revenge in that time and no Hizbullah action since has unnecessarily jeopardized Lebanon’s security.

Everyone here says that disarming the resistance is the next big thing immediately after the elections. The US, which made sure that a clause saying as much was included in UN Resolution 1559 calling for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, has strategically decided to leave the matter to the post-election period and then pounce on Hizbullah with all the pressure it can muster. There is a lot of speculation about possible solutions, including such schemes as creating a “resistance brigade” by merging Hizbullah into the Lebanese army, but most agree that the issue is potentially explosive.

Certainly, and especially now that Syria is out, no military power exists in Lebanon strong enough to forcibly disarm Hizbullah. Other means must be found—what exactly is unclear so far. For its part Hizbullah is using the elections to “fortify,” as they say, their position. It has struck electoral alliances with almost all factions, asking for guarantees from its allies to defend the arms of the resistance. Some genuine sympathizers have been forthcoming and many have given lip service to the sanctity of the resistance—the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt even spoke at the Hizbullah liberation rally just before Nasrallah. But what the US has up its sleeve and how far it is willing to go will determine how many will actually keep their word.

Election time

I got a chance to witness the Beirut parliamentary elections last Sunday (the elections here are being conducted over the course of 4 Sundays starting May 29—the South is this coming Sunday, then Mt. Lebanon followed by the North). Not surprisingly, the Harriri list led by the son Saad, dominated. No one opposing them in all of Beirut’s 19 seats was able to come close. Turnout at 28% was dismal, one of the worst in recent history (including during the time of Syrians), although many note that the highest turnout the country has witnessed was 48%. This was also probably due to the fact that nearly half the candidates were uncontested and few doubted who would win. The press reported that many Beirutis spent election Sunday on the beach instead.

The grand irony is that although this is theoretically Lebanon’s first free elections in 30 years, many here feel that they are among the least democratic. Most of the results are known because Lebanon’s powers-that-be patched the whole thing up before election time with the full support of Washington. The ever-present US ambassador here—who even showed up with some Congressmen to inspect a polling site—could not but admit that the elections were lacking, yet insisted that they take place on time.

Many Lebanese are convinced Washington couldn’t care less about the fairness of the elections as long as they happen, so Bush can claim yet another victory for the march of freedom in Middle East after the invasion of Iraq. Most, however, accept as a given that Lebanon will be controlled by one outside power or another—yesterday Syria, today the US and France.

It now appears almost certain that the Harriri list and its allies may very well possess a majority in Lebanon’s new parliament—a first for the country where the largest bloc in the 128-seat parliament was Hizbullah’s 12 MP’s. But what they have in store for Lebanon remains unclear. Of greatest concern to most Lebanese is, first, the economy and how to handle the gigantic $44 billion debt (something like 184% of the country’s GDP, one of the highest in the world, per capita).

Then there is the question of how to handle US pressure to disarm the resistance. Government corruption (which is responsible for much of the debt) and Lebanon’s entrenched sectarian political system also rank at the top of Lebanese concerns. Then there is a host of other not-so-minor issues stretching from what to do with the approximately 400,000 Palestinian refugees to devising a new election law the would provide the country with some semblance of democracy in the next elections.

It is worrying that the Harriri list has been either vague or has said nothing at all about what it intends to do about these issues, with the strikingly uncharismatic Saad pronouncing ad nauseam that they stand for “dialogue and moderation.” Their main focus, justifiably, is to make sure that the remains of the Syrian security state—by which Lebanon was ruled—is thoroughly cleansed from the Lebanese. So the first order of business will be to force the resignation of Lebanon’s Syrian puppet president Emile Lahoud and a thorough purge of Lebanon’s intelligence services.

Other matters, like the elections taking place right now, will most likely “be cooked abroad,” as they say here, and foisted on the Lebanese from on high. The one ray of hope that has not been extinguished in all the political maneuvering is that the great majority (close to 80% of the population, according to one survey) remain resolutely opposed to Lebanon’s corrupt sectarian system and want to see a secular order in its place.

To build on this sentiment, a small group of artists and activists have founded Hayya Bina (Let’s Go). We ran into them on the streets of Beirut on election day passing out ballots that said “64 Muslims + 64 Christians = 0 Lebanese.” That is a reference to the way the Lebanese parliament must be divided under the current constitution. This demand for a secular Lebanon is a good start and a small consolation to the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese youth who filled the streets a few weeks ago hoping that a new dawn had finally arrived. So far, Lebanon’s new masters have shown us nothing but darkness.

Bilal El-Amine

See our last post on the Lebanon crisis.

  1. Details on Samir Kassir slaying
    This from Reporters Without Borders on the June 2 car-bomb slaying of leading newspaper columnist Samir Kassir in Beirut:

    Kassir was killed when his white Alfa Romeo car, which was parked outside his home in the Christian neighbourhood of Achrafieh in East Beirut, exploded at 10:45 a.m. (07:45 GMT). Interior minister Hassan Sabeh told journalists on 3 June that Kassir was killed “by the explosion of a charge of 500 to 700 grams of plastic explosive attached to the chassis of his car beneath the driver’s seat, which was set off by remote control.” A woman whose identity was not released was injured by the blast.

    Lebanese army soldiers rushed to the scene of the bombing. Prime Minister Nagib Miqati, French ambassador Bernard Emié, German ambassador Rudolf Kniess and European Commission representative Patrick Renault all went to the scene as well.

    A writer and historian with both French and Lebanese citizenship, 45-year-old Kassir had been writing columns for the past 10 years for An-Nahar (“The Day” in Arabic), a moderate daily newspaper with a circulation of 55,000. He was also the correspondent of the French-language international television station TV5 and had written for many years for the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique. He was also professor of political sciences at Beirut’s St Joseph university.

    Well-known for his anti-Syrian positions and his criticism of the “Lebanese police state,” he had been harassed and threatened for years. In 2000, he was harassed by Lebanese state security police and his Lebanese passport was confiscated. He later said he was constantly followed by Lebanese and Syrian intelligence agents. Former prime minister Hariri had given him protection at that time. His last column, on 27 May, was headlined “Gaffe after gaffe” and criticised “the continuing repression in Syria.”

    Kassir was one of the founders of the opposition Movement of the Democratic Left and was an active participant in the anti-Syrian protests in the spring of this year. After meeting on the evening of 2 June, the Lebanese opposition called for the resignation of President Emile Lahoud and urged all Lebanese to observe a day of mourning and a strike on 3 June, which ended up receiving little support.

    The Lebanese press was glowing in its tributes to Kassir, calling him a “martyr to freedom and democracy.” In response to an appeal from the daily An-Nahar, hundreds of journalists dressed in black and white observed an hour of silence from 7 to 8 a.m. on 3 June in the centre of Beirut, raising their fists in the air at the end.

    President Lahoud said he “condemned the murder” and announced that he would ask the head of the UN commission investigating Hariri’s 14 February assassination to extend their enquiries to include Kassir’s murder. Lahoud also said he would chair an extraordinary cabinet meeting to “consider and adopt measures needed to protect journalists and the media against all attacks.”