Saturday, June 7, 2008

An Unusual Greeting

Sarkozy is in Lebanon today, and he arranged for himself to be greeted on the ground by representatives of all the French political parties with representation in the Assembly. So Copé and Hollande and Bayrou are there, to say nothing of Marie-George Buffet for the PCF and Jean-Michel Baylet for the PRG (who knew it still existed?). One can readily imagine the wisecracks being exchanged in le peloton as the head of state emerged from his plane. The goal, presumably, was to mark Lebanon as the object of special French attention. I'm not sure that the Lebanese will be sensible of the honor being done them, but it was shrewd of Sarkozy to choose a place where the political situation is so sensitive that none of the assembled dignitaries is likely to feel free to criticize the president for treating that nation's representatives as if they were a royal retinue.


Elie Elhadj said...

The battle for Lebanon
The battle for Lebanon is a battle between a relatively rich minority; numerically that is, among Lebanon’s four million people and a poor majority. The minority controls the political and economic fortunes of the country. The majority refuses to be dominated. The divide is political and economic, not religious or sectarian; though, Lebanon is home to 18 different religious sects, all recognized in the Lebanese constitution.

The minority encompasses factions within the Maronite and other Christian communities, traditionally known for their anti-Syria, pro-France and the United States affiliation led by former president Amin Gemayel’s Phalange Party and Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces. Additionally, the minority includes Sunni Muslims, traditionally pro Syria but changed sides recently, led by the young Saudi/ Lebanese billionaire Saad Al-Hariri’s Future Movement, and a large faction among Lebanon’s Druzes who had been pro-Syria but changed sides too; led by Walid Junblat’s Progressive Socialist Party.

The majority includes Maronite and other Christians; led by former general Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. The majority includes also the downtrodden Shiites; led by Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah and Nabih Berri’s Amal movement, in addition to Sunni Muslims; led by former prime minister Omar Karami and Sunni cleric Fathi Yakun’s Islamic Movement of Lebanon, and Druzes; led by Talal Arsalan’s Druze Democratic Party. The poor majority looks to Syria and Iran for support.

It is difficult to know with accuracy the religious and the sectarian make-up of Lebanon’s population. The last census was taken in 1932. That census gave Christians more than half of the population, with the Maronites a third of the population. However, Christian numbers have been declining since 1932 due to relatively low rates of population growth compared to Muslims’ growth rates, especially the Shiites, and to migration from Lebanon to Europe and the Americas.

Today, the general consensus is that Shiites represent just over 40% of the Lebanese, Christians roughly 35%, Sunnis around 20%, and Druzes about 5%. That no census since 1932 has been allowed to take place reflects the seriousness of Lebanon population issue.

The rich minority may be guesstimated at about 40% of the population. In the 2005 parliamentary election, this minority won the majority of the seats: 72 out of 128 seats, or 56%. The poor majority, estimated at about 60% won 56 seats, or 44%. The skewed representation in parliament is the result of a flawed election law and the power of Saad Al-Hariri’s billions. The rich oppose a meaningful change to the election law; the poor support the change.

Saad Al-Hariri is a son of Rafiq Al-Hariri. He holds Saudi and Lebanese nationalities. Rafiq Al-Hariri was born in 1944 in the Lebanese port city of Sidon to a Sunni Muslim family of modest means. He moved from rags to riches swiftly. In 1965, he left for Saudi Arabia, working as an accountant in a construction company. Fifteen years later, Rafiq Al-Hariri was on the Forbes top 100. After his assassination in 2006, his family members featured in Forbes’ list of billionaires in 2006. He reportedly left an estate of $16.7 billion. Saudi Oger, a construction company owned by Al-Hariri is a thriving business in Saudi Arabia today specializing in the construction and maintenance of profligate palaces for the senior Al-Sauds.

In 1978, Rafiq Al-Hariri was made a citizen of Saudi Arabia. He returned to Lebanon in the early 1980’s; implanted by the Saudi ruling family in response to the absence of a viable Sunni leadership in the country and the rising power of the Shiite population since the early 1960s under the leadership of the cleric Musa Al-Sadr (disappeared in 1978 while on an official visit to Libya).

The Shiites have been for centuries the downtrodden of Lebanon, suffering abject poverty, illiteracy, and ill health. Marginalized and discriminated against as second-class citizens by the government and society, Lebanon’s Shiites have suffered centuries of indignity and humiliation. Their liberation started in 1959 with the arrival to the coastal city of Tyre of Musa Al-Sadr, an Iranian-born Lebanese Shiite cleric, son of a long line of distinguished Shiite scholars. At the turn of the nineteenth century, his ancestors escaped Ottoman persecution from Tyre to Iraq’s holy city of Najaf, then to Iran.

A close religious connection between Iran and the Shiites of Lebanon had been established some five centuries ago. Shah Ismail made Shiism the state religion of the Safavid dynasty (1502-1737) instead of Sunnism, presumably to fight the Sunni Ottomans. Lacking the clerics to convert and teach Shiism to his subjects, Shiite scholars from southern Lebanon (Mount Amel) were invited to establish schools and train Persian clerics in Shiism. Ever since that time a theological bridge between Iran and Lebanon flourished.

Musa Al-Sadr awakened in the Shiites of Lebanon a sense of dignity and worth unknown before. He replaced their innate self-pity, sorrow, and submission by a fiery spirit of hope, defiance, and revolution. In 1974, Al-Sadr formed the Movement of the Disinherited, a political movement aimed at social justice. In 1975, the Amal movement was formed as the militia wing of the Movement of the Disinherited. After Al-Sadr’s disappearance in 1978, the momentum of his work gave rise in the early 1980s to Hezbollah, a militia trained, organized, and funded by Ayatollah Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards. In addition to its military wing, Hezbollah organizes extensive networks of social development programs, running hospitals, schools, and social help for the poor.

In Lebanon, Rafiq Al-Hariri started to establish his power base through making large donations and contributions to various groups and causes. He laid the groundwork for the 1989 Taif Accord, which Saudi Arabia organized. Taif ended the fifteen-year civil war (1975-1990) and paved the way in 1992 for Al-Hariri to become prime minister. He was prime minister from 1992 to 1998 and again from 2000 until his resignation on 20 October 2004. Hariri was assassinated on 14 February 2005.

Until the cataclysmic events of September 11, 2001 took place Rafiq Al-Hariri was content to rule in Lebanon under Syria’s domination. Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1976 at the request of the Lebanese. They put an end to Lebanon’s civil war. Syrian troops were in Lebanon for 29 years before being forced to withdraw unceremoniously on April 26, 2005, in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1559 of September 2004. After 9/11, however, matters changed.

The Bush administration’s response to 9/11 was to want to reshape the Middle East; change the regimes of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, destroy Hezbollah in Lebanon plus Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip; and, force a settlement in the Arab Israeli conflict on Israel’s terms. US forces occupied Afghanistan in October 2001 and Iraq in April 2003. Saudi Arabia would play a major role in Washington’s unfolding plans.

That 15 out of the 19 murderers on 9/11 were Saudis threatens catastrophe to the Al-Sauds. Fearing America’s retaliation, the Al-Sauds performed an act of preemptive surrender. Events since 2001 suggest that the Al-Sauds have become even more obsequious and obvious in their submissiveness to Washington than ever before.

Traditionally, Saudis traveled the more than a thousand kilometers or so to Lebanon as tourists seeking temperate climate, breathtaking mountains, beautiful women, delicious cuisine, and abundant alcohol. Post 9/11, Saudi Arabia’s interest in Lebanon took a new purpose; install in Beirut a pro Washington government, destroy Hezbollah, and change the regime in Damascus. The instrument would be a Trojan horse loaded with Saudi money called Al-Hariri.

Since the 2005 parliamentary elections the Al-Hariri/ Gemayel/ Geagea/ Junblat alliance, known as 14 March alliance, has been in control of the Lebanese parliament and the cabinet. Prime minister Fouad Seniora has been for years an employee of Al-Hariri companies serving as finance director. Seniora was made finance minister in Rafiq Al-Hariri’s cabinets then prime minister in 2005 by Saad Al-Hariri and his Saudi handlers. The 14 March alliance succeeded in removing Syria’s troops from Lebanon in 2005.

The Saudi plan, however, has run into trouble. Hezbollah proved to be more resilient than to be sidelined easily. In July 2006, Israel failed to destroy Hezbollah despite 33 days of relentless bombardment from the air, land, and sea using the most sophisticated weapons that destroyed much of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure and killed about 1,000 civilians. Also, when Lebanon’s cabinet decided on May 6, 2008 that Hezbollah’s communication network should be dismantled and that the head of Beirut’s airport security must be removed, Hezbollah reacted violently forcing the cabinet on May 14, 2008 to reverse the two decisions. In the aftermath of this showdown, government and opposition representatives reached on May 21, 2008 in Doha, Qatar a power-sharing agreement in which the Hezbollah-led opposition increased its seats in the cabinet from six to eleven out of 30 seats; winning a veto power over the cabinet decisions.

Syria objects to Saudi Arabia’s political encroachment of Lebanon. Syria and Lebanon have been over the millennia one society. Natural Syria has always signified Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. A look at the map shows why. Lebanon, a small land of 10,230 square kilometers, is surrounded by Syria from all sides (375 kilometers), the Mediterranean Sea to the West (225 kilometers) and a strip of land to the south bordering Israel (79 kilometers). Less than two-hour car ride separates Damascus from Beirut. Many of the families in Beirut and Tripoli, for example, have branches in Damascus and Homs. Syrians and Lebanese share the Arabic language, values, customs, habits, food, music, let alone centuries of being ruled as one entity. They became two separate states after the French mandate ended in the mid 1940s.

Syria fears that threats to its own national security could come from Lebanon in two ways. First, Damascus worries that a Saudi controlled government in Lebanon would compromise the defenses of Syria’s own border with Israel. Given their contiguous geography, the military defenses of the Syrian and Lebanese fronts need, in Syria’s view, to be closely coordinated if the Syrian front is to remain viable. Post 9/11, Riyadh’s intentions and policies became suspect. Under such conditions, Syria would strive to keep Lebanon’s southern border from falling under the control of a Saudi controlled government in Beirut.

Secondly, Syria considers Wahhabi intolerance towards other Islamic sects and religions as a threat to Syria’s age-old religious and ethnic harmony. To Syria’s ruling Alawites, Wahhabi belief that the Alawites, indeed all Shiites, are non-Muslim heretics could endanger the very existence of the Alawites and their regime. To most Syrians, Wahhabism is a primitive doctrine exploited by the Al-Sauds to subdue the populace in the name of extremist interpretation of Islam; an anathema to Syria’s moderate Hanafi Sunni rite, let alone Syria’s other religions and sects. As such, Syria would resist Saudi Wahhabi attempts to make Lebanon a gateway to Syria. It may be predicted that even if Syria reaches its own peace agreement with Israel in the future, Damascus’ would continue to strive to keep Lebanon free of Wahhabi control. That certain factions amongst Lebanon’s Maronites and moderate Sunnis, let alone the Druzes, have found it politically convenient to ally themselves with the Wahhabis is like the lamb befriending the wolf.

As far as Syria is concerned, Lebanon is not for sale to Saudi Arabia.

Elie Elhadj; Author: The Islamic Shield

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