Socialist View, No. 14, Spring 2005

After Hariri assassination - Lebannon's New Crisis

THE ASSASSINATION OF former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri (Sunni), has turned Beirut into a political battleground as millions have taken to the streets in protest and counter-protest. Two demonstrations have taken place involving up to a million people on each in a country with a population of only 3.5 million. Sectarian tensions have been exacerbated and memories of the Lebanese civil war of 1975 - 1990 raise the prospect of a new conflict.

By Stephen Boyd

In the aftermath of Hariri's assassination, Syria, Al-Qaeda, and Israeli Mossad have all been blamed. The US ambassador to Damascus has been recalled as part of the current strategy of the Bush administration to try to pressurise Syria into withdrawing its troops from the Lebanon. Recently, Bush has been crowing that his invasion and occupation of Iraq has lead to a new wave of democratic change throughout the Middle East. He is arguing that US strategy has been vindicated, and that US Imperialism's "freedom and democracy" strategy is working and cited the following as proo: the Iraqi elections, the forthcoming Lebanese elections, the so-called openness in the Egyptian presidential election, the moves towards a new peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Neo-conservative elements in Washington have the objective of destabilising Iraq - to Balkanise it - resulting in the break up of Iraq into three smaller states, which they hope to be able to then control and contain. This strategy is of course mad, as it would be preceeded by a civil war - the Lebanonisation of Iraq - that would have a further destabilising affect on the whole of the region.

The Lebanon was created by French Imperialism in 1920 after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. The French created a state with inbuilt instabilities by including Muslim areas that wanted to be part of Syria. Lebanon's population is divided between various Muslim and Christian sects. Latest estimates state that the population is made up of 41% Shia, 27% Sunni, 7% Druze (all Muslims), 16% Maronite, 5% Greek Orthodox and 3% Greek Catholics (all Christians). Under previous agreements voting structures have been established to give seats in parliament to 17 different recognized religious groups and which divides up the executive functions. Institutionalised sectarianism (similar to the Good Friday Agreement) is enshrined in Lebanon. The president has to be a Christian Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni, and speaker of parliament a Shia. A parallel can be drawn with Iraq and the current attempts by US Imperialism to broker a similar power-sharing agreement between Shias, Kurds and Sunnis. The Bush administration is hoping that they can orchestrate the events in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination to force the Syrians out, and that elections will take place returning a new "power-sharing" government that will be able to govern the Lebanon free from foreign occupation. Bush and others have spoken of the "Cedar Revolution" to end the Syrian occupation.

In a speech on 8 March 2005, Bush said "any who doubt the appeal of freedom in the Middle East can look to Lebanon, where the Lebanese people are demanding a free and independent nation...The Lebanese people have the right to choose their own parliament this spring, free of intimidation...Today I have a message for the people of Lebanon: all the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience. Lebanon's future belongs in your hands, and by your courage, Lebanon's future will be in your hands." As Bush delivered this statesman like speech, one million were demonstrating on the streets of Beirut against US, Israeli and French involvement in the Lebanon, shouting slogans such as, "Beirut is free, America out!"

The Lebanon has long been a battleground in which the strategic battles between US Imperialism, Israel and Syria has been played out. Some speculate that Israel assassinated Hariri in order to weaken Syria and the Hezbollah and strengthen security on its northern border. The motive may also have been to give the US an excuse to intervene. Mustafa al-Naser, an associate of Hariri, told the Iranian news agency IRNA that "the assassination of Hariri is the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad's job, aimed at creating political tension in Lebanon". Arab Middle East "analysts", as well as the Lebanese government, have pointed out that the blast was similar to previous Israeli organised bombings against Palestinian leaders. The current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would not be shy about assassinating anyone. He led the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon in 1982 causing huge devastation to Beirut and was responsible for the massacre of thousands of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Syria has also been blamed for the assassination and may have carried it out because they viewed Hariri as a threat to their interests. Hariri had supported the US - French sponsored UN resolution 1559 in September 2004 which calls for the complete withdrawal of Syrian troops from the Lebanon and also for the disarmament of the Hezbollah. Syria has pulled back army and intelligence agents to eastern Lebanon, and 4,000 have returned to Syria with the remaining 10,000 possibly leaving by 7 April. UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen has said that the UN has made no decision on how they are going to disarm the Hezbollah, which is not surprising.

As part of Bush's "democratisation" plans, or to put it a better way, his attempts to put in power governments which are favourable to the interests of US Imperialism in the region, he has begun to make overtures to the Hezbollah. Until recently, the US has backed its Israeli allies in taking a hardline with Hezbollah, who are on the US terrorist list. However, a changed approach to Hezbollah was signaled by Bush in a speech he made on 15 March in which he said: "We view Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and I would hope that Hezbollah would prove that they're not by laying down arms and not threatening peace... Hezbollah has been declared a terrorist organization by the United States because of its terrorist activities in the past" [our emphasis]. The New York Times said: "The [US] administration's shift was described by American, European and United Nations officials as a reluctant recognition that Hezbollah, besides having a militia and sponsoring attacks on Israelis, is an enormous political force in Lebanon that could block Western efforts to get Syria to withdraw its troops." It also quoted an official saying, "The administration has an absolute aversion to admitting that Hezbollah has a role to play in Lebanon, but that is the path we're going down."

Hezbollah is a Shia organisation and is supported by a majority of the Shias, who make up 41% of the Lebanese population. Hezbollah is also supported by Iran and Syria, and is viewed by many Arabs as an heroic resistance movement because of its role in forcing Israel to abandon its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.

It was Hezbollah that organized the one million strong anti-US and "pro-Syrian" demonstration on 8 March. This may have influenced the change of tack by the US regime, who now seem intent on trying to bring Hezbollah into the mainstream of politics using a similar approach to that taken by the British in relation to Sinn Fein and the IRA. Thereby establishing a "model" democratic state in the Middle East that they can use as an example to try and effect the removal of the Syrian regime and boost the prospects of a deal to stabilize relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Bush's overtures to the Hezbollah are also influenced by the fact that any actions either directly or indirectly by the US or its allies against the Hezbollah would have consequences amongst the Shia population of Iraq, who Bush is currently leaning on to form a government. Hezbollah currently has 12 members in the Assembly and plans to stand in the May elections. On the 8 March demonstration under direction from Hasan Nasrullah (Hezbollah, secretary general), he did not allow any guns on the march.

Bush's speeches in favour of moves towards more "democracy" in the Middle East is not a genuine desire to allow the peoples of that region to have more freedom and say in the running of their countries. It is, in reality, an attempt to bring about reform from above to stop revolution from below. It is recognition that the occupation of Iraq has destabilised the Middle East, not stabilised it as Bush has claimed.

On 14 March a Christian/Sunni-led demonstration demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops reportedly was even bigger than the one million strong Hezbollah protest. Both Christian and Muslim leaders have been making speeches in an attempt to prevent the protests developing into conflict. There were rumours on the 14 March demonstration that Shi'ites were going to the Palestianian camps to get weapons. There have also been reports of sectarian attacks and of one sectarian murder. Hezbollah called off a number of demonstrations fearing that such massive mobilisations of supporters from both sides risked spilling over into violent clashes.

Hasan Nasrullah has called for a government of national unity that may gain support because of people's fears of sectarian conflict or foreign intervention. But none of the current dominant political forces in the Lebanon offer the Lebanese people a future free from poverty, sectarian conflict or civil war. The absence of a strong workers' movement and political party has allowed sectarian forces to divide the working class. The post-civil war rebuilding programme has left the country with a $35 billion debt. The IMF has demanded massive spending cuts, privatisations and attacks on wages. Unemployment stands at 20% and approximately 30% live in poverty. Hariri was prime minister for 10 of the 15 years since the end of the civil war and faced a general strike in nearly every one of those years against his economic policies, such as a freeze on the minimum wage, higher taxes and attacks on social welfare spending.

The Lebanese working class cannot depend on any of the sectarian parties or on Syria to provide them with a better life free from the threat of sectarian conflict, civil war or foreign invasion. It is necessary to build a mass working class movement in the Lebanon that unites all religious denominations and nationalities in a struggle for socialist change. Such a movement could appeal to the working masses in Syria for support for the creation of a socialist state as part of a voluntary socialist federation of the Middle East.