Lebanon

A Country Divided

In the wake of recent events, Lebanon is now confronting a new crisis that is splitting the country into two camps. This time, however, it's not different faiths that are squaring off, as in the civil war of the 1980s. Bernhard Hillenkamp reports

Reflection of Pierre Gemayel on a car window during his funeral (photo: AP)
The murder of Pierre Gemayel has further contributed to the political polarisation within Lebanon - but, according to Bernhard Hillenkamp, there is no immediate threat of civil war

​​In the weeks leading up to the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, the 34-year old Industry Minister, posters were hung up all over Lebanon bearing the slogan "We will not forget." More than eleven months after the last successful attack, all of the victims of political murders during the past two years were to be commemorated on huge billboards.

The five murdered figures were members of the movement of March 14, 2005, which was initiated after the killing of the former prime minister and that reached its high point in a demonstration on March 14th. Among the movement's accomplishments was to put a stop to the Syrian army's presence of the in Lebanon.

The poster campaign was designed to lend added urgency to the call for an international tribunal to investigate the prime minister's murder in order for a fair sentence to be handed down. But just as the memory of the bloody events of the last two years was fading, the Maronite Christian Pierre Gemayel became the victim of a new attack, only one day before November 22, Lebanese Independence Day.

Overnight, political reality had made the posters obsolete. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese made their way to Martyrs' Square for Gemayel's funeral, not only to mourn, but also to express their political demands. One thing is for sure: the last few days in Lebanon have summoned in many a feeling of déjà vu.

Mass resignations as political tool

Already before the assassination, a sectarian crisis in government was already dominating the country's political climate. The opposition, led by Hezbollah and supported by General Michel Aoun's mostly Christian "Free Patriotic Movement," had caused six ministers to resign, spelling the failure of national talks.

On the day of the resignations, Fouad Sinoura had originally wanted to pass the draft proposal for the formation of an international tribunal to investigate the murder of ex-prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. But the opposition, which is referred to as the March 8th Movement after its biggest demonstration in March 2005, vetoed the resolution. A serious crisis developed for the Lebanese government.

The opposition is demanding enough parliamentary seats to wield veto power, or, in its own words, a third of all ministerial posts, in order to secure it more participation in government decision-making. The March 14th Movement expressed doubts regarding the attitude of Hezbollah.

Another movement leader, Butrous Harb, believes that an "opposition minority with veto power could block important decisions, such as the appointment of civil servants in the interior ministry or economic reforms."

Time for dialogue appears to be running out. For the politicians in Lebanon, as well as for civil society beyond the monolithic opposing blocs, the air has become thin. Muscles are being flexed demonstratively and both sides are becoming entrenched behind their exclusionary standpoints. On the very same evening that the funeral took place, Shiites blocked the road to the airport in the southern part of the city.

They demonstrated against verbal attacks on Hasan Nasrallah during the funeral ceremony. The mood is tense. Political decisions are made today in back rooms since public debate appears impossible. A hectic round of diplomatic visits has begun in an effort to defuse the crisis. The opposition has already announced demonstrations for next week – after the days of mourning are at an end.

Mutual mistrust

The government further aggravated the conflict on Saturday. The cabinet met – without the five Shiite ministers and the orthodox minister close to Lahoud who had all resigned – and ratified the draft proposal for an international tribunal on the murder of Rafik Hariri.

"The ratification and the session itself are unconstitutional," declared Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. In a joint communiqué, Hassan Nasrallah and Nabih Berri confirmed their positive attitude toward the international tribunal.

Nevertheless, as Saad Hariri explained, "just as the opposition has its doubts about our views on the weapons of resistance, we do not trust the opposition's stance with regard to the international tribunal."

Mohammed Raad – chairman of the Hezbollah-Amal faction in parliament and a leading member of Hezbollah, formulated the attitude of the opposition indirectly, in the regional context: "America wants to use Lebanese soil to take action against its enemies, and we are against it."

The demand of the March 14th Movement to make the investigation into the political murders part of the mandate of the UN Commission had already prompted the Shiite ministers to temporarily leave their posts following the attack on Jubran Tueni in December 2005. The opposition is now ready to take the conflict to the streets.

It's not only in the western media that journalists are voicing their fear of an impending civil war; Jordanian King Abdullah can also foresee such a scenario. These fears appear to be ungrounded since none of the conflicting parties possess sufficient weaponry or an adequate military infrastructure, nor does there seem to be a true political will to set off this kind of escalation.

The crisis in Lebanon is a political one, not one involving the system itself. And the lines of conflict between the two camps are not religious ones.

Nevertheless, the clash is bound to come to a head outside of parliament as well. What is lacking here is a capacity for the kind of orderly conflict resolution expected in civil society. It is not even clear whether the government resolution of Saturday was actually constitutional. The self-anointed constitutional interpreters have differing views.

Many believe that the tension will only let up when the draft proposal on the international tribunal is passed by a parliament controlled by the March 14th Movement. Only then will political compromises and pluralistic discussions beyond the issues of the tribunal and extended involvement of the opposition in government be possible.

And only then can the demand be fulfilled that can be found on another poster for Independence Day: 8 + 14 = 22. The March 8th group plus the March 14th group equals November 22 – Lebanese independence. As long as Lebanese still awaits a final decision on the international tribunal, the dialogue between the two camps and opposition participation in government will remain blocked.

Bernhard Hillenkamp

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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