Lebanon and the Limits of Protests
By: Ghassan Charbel Al-Hayat - 06/01/07

After a month has passed since the opposition in Lebanon began its protests, any objective observer can put forth a number of observations.

First, the opposition's success in setting off a large-scale mobilization of the masses while keeping it strictly peaceful should be noted, because no violence against public or private property has taken place during the last month. It is no secret that this was due to the ability of Hezbollah, the backbone of the current mobilization of the masses, to control its supporters and prevent emotion from turning into street confrontation, despite the provocative rhetoric.

Further observation would suggest that the mobilization has not lost impetus, in the sense that the opposition is still capable of repeating the scene of mass demonstrations, capitalizing on the wide public appeal of Hezbollah among its sect, as well as the Party's long past experience in organizing massive street action that is undisputedly controlled and disciplined.

This does not negate the participation of other sides in the action, particularly the Michel Aoun movement. However, consistent tracking of the events of the past month would reveal that Hezbollah's masses are the actual center of this public action, and that it is Hezbollah's agenda that is governing and controlling the drive.

Furthermore, after a month of mass mobilization, unbiased observers will be able to conclude that the opposition still maintains the same strength it displayed at the beginning of the protests, and that it has succeeded in attracting citizens from outside its original camp.

At the same time, it is also clear that the other camp is now stronger than it was when the protests broke out, as the march of the masses to the presidential palace, which was accompanied by threats to storm it, led to an unprecedented fueling of sentiments, and generated an equally unprecedented show of support for Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora among his own ranks, in addition to his followers' base from within the ranks of the March 14 Forces.

The same applies to MP Saad Hariri, who experienced a surge in popularity among the ranks of the March 14 Forces.

As the opposition enters its second month of protests and sit-ins, opposition leaders must be aware of the significant and extensive deterioration witnessed during the past month in the Sunni-Shiite relations, which has not been seen since the independence of Lebanon.

Accordingly, it would be wise to assume that it is no longer possible for the opposition to clash with PM Siniora without also clashing with his sect, especially when taking into account that the opposition's rejection of street action that aimed at overthrowing President Emile Lahoud, and even threatened to take action against any attempts of that sort.

Therefore, when it convenes to approve the plans for the next stage of its action, the opposition will have no choice but to direct its attention to new elements, as the first month of protests led to an impression by Arab and international capitals that equates any victory by the Lebanese opposition with the success of the large-scale offensive waged by Iran in the region.

This impression was also among the key factors that consolidated the standing of the Siniora government on the Arab and international levels.

The opposition would also be better off taking into consideration the fact that the savage, vindictive execution of Saddam Hussein has added fuel to the fire of sectarian strife in the region, and has further heated the debate regarding the looming 'Iranian threat'.

The opposition in Lebanon is anything but marginal; it is a force that stands to represent half, or a little less than half, of the nation. Therefore, it would be fair to expect from it a rational review of lessons resulting from its action over the past month, as it, too, has a responsibility toward the nation and its stability, and toward protecting the nation from the storms of sectarian feuds, even if the price is in the form of lowering demands or accepting compromises it previously rejected.

At the same time, no one can claim the right of keeping the nation under the threat of sectarian sedition or civil war, or of pushing the nation toward the brink of total collapse, just because peaceful means have failed to topple PM Siniora.

Just as the government is expected to exert serious effort to open the door to the possibility of reaching resolutions and settlements, the opposition is also required to review the local and domestic scene before taking any escalatory steps.

Any reasonable and acceptable settlement remains a far better choice than keeping Lebanon hanging in a region that faces a bleak future.