Can Hizbullah's Lebanon lead to consensus?
By Joseph Bahout -Daily Star
Monday, September 04, 2006
It might well be true, as many frightened politicians in Lebanon are saying today, that Hizbullah has just conducted a coup d'etat. But such an assertion would not be completely accurate unless it embraced the entire sequence of events: the July 12 abduction of two Israeli soldiers along the border, and the cessation of hostilities under UN Security Council Resolution 1701. If Hizbullah really put into practice the classical mechanism of "war making-state building," Israel should be entitled to claim the primary credit in its success.
Regardless of whose fault it was to inflame the South Lebanese front that had been more or less quiet since May 2000, and regardless of the widely recognized disproportionate nature of Israel's response to the kidnapping operation, 34 days of all-out war on Lebanon's infrastructure resulted in the amplification, at least inside Lebanon, of the perception of a weak, even moribund state, countered by a resilient and tactically efficient Hizbullah. The relative diplomatic success the Siniora government can claim to have achieved will not seriously change this perception. The foreseeable gradual erosion of the 1701 mechanism merely confirms that much of Lebanon's immediate future from now on lies in the hands of Hizbullah and its strategy of resistance.
Does this mean that Hizbullah has completely taken over Lebanon's essential political decision-making capacity and the entire country's fate? Has Hizbullah become a state within a state, or a state alongside of and superior to the official one? This is too hasty an assertion; it also completely ignores the track history of the entire 15 years of post-war Lebanon. During these years, two projects competed with and confronted one another on Lebanon's soil and in Lebanese institutions, and both articulated deeply rooted internal dynamics and regional vested interests.
The first revolved around the figure of entrepreneurial Prime Minister Rafik Hariri with his strong Saudi and Western backing, and openly gambled on a potential peaceful dynamic in the Middle East to revive a wounded merchant and cosmopolitan Lebanon. The second had Hizbullah as its backbone, was backed by Iran and its ambitious Islamist project, and considered Lebanon an advanced combat front against Israel and, when necessary, the West. Both projects were permitted, animated and arbitrated by Syrian tutelage, then accepted by the West, which kept them in balance. With the crafting of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 and the paradigm shift provoked on the Lebanese political scene by the removal of the Syrian factor, the Hizbullah project was put on the defensive. But Hizbullah had dynamics of its own that were rooted in Israeli occupation, Shiite mobilization and ambition regarding the post-war Lebanese political system, as well as the catalyzing effect of the Iranian build-up and the overall Islamic rise in the region. By sometimes willingly ignoring these factors and considering Hizbullah as simply the remnant of a previous era of Syrian domination, the dominant Lebanese political discourse probably helped put the party on the defensive and persuaded it that what was at stake was its very survival and that the time had come for it to fight an existential war.
In such a broad context, there exists today a Lebanese discourse that argues that Hizbullah's "provoked" war with Israel was nothing more than an armed attempt at cutting the momentum and depriving the country of its independence project, and that the "Cedar Revolution" that flooded the streets of Beirut a little over a year ago was the victim of Shiite vigilante adventurism. It is striking, in this respect, to contrast the two diametrically different narratives of the recent war that are dividing the Lebanese polity and society: contradictory analyses of the real causes of the war, and contradictory assessments of who really won it and lost it.
But Lebanese have a very costly and painful experience with opposing narratives, with stories of one party's triumph turning out to be another's debacle. They also know that words can sometimes be as lethal as weapons. When an entire sector of the community is depicted as having a deeply different sense of belonging, identity and collective goals, and when that sector is moreover accused of being a hostile "foreigner's" proxy, then the "enemy within" has arrived and strife is not far away.
Thus it is not surprising that a probing question that has periodically haunted the Lebanese is now with us again: Are we on the brink of a new civil war? The question is not new; it was raised many times before the recent round of violence, and it became an obsession after Hariri's assassination, in which many saw the trigger of unavoidable tension between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon - reflecting the tension that flared up in Iraq after the fall of Baghdad. In the incredibly tense atmosphere the last war has generated, it will take a lot of domestic political generosity on all sides and an improbably benevolent international concern to keep Lebanon from sliding down such scary slopes.
Let's hope that scenarios of the "Hizbullization" of Lebanon or the civil-war nightmare are still too extreme and far-fetched. Realistically, one cannot yet rule out another classic accommodation a la Libanaise in which Hizbullah agrees to trade off its military "victory" for mutually accepted political benefits. This time, however, if a "Lebanese bazaar" is to be opened again, one should also realistically expect that the structural changes and transformations that have been at work since the end of the last civil war would prove too complex to be integrated and digested by traditional mechanisms such as the one provided by Taif.
If Hizbullah is not to become a state within a state or even the state itself, it will still have the ambition - some would say the right - to implant its own definition of Lebanese statehood and a new "Lebanonism." In such a venture, in which many Lebanese will have to learn to accommodate those they consider newcomers, the Lebanese social and political fabric will again probe the limits of its complexity and subtlety. And once again, while experiencing the fragility of Lebanon's equilibrium, this country's friends and foes alike will be reminded that compromise and consensus often come at the expense of decision-making and state-building.
**Joseph Bahout is currently professor and research associate at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.