Monday, February 11, 2008

Hanging by a thread

There was lots of shooting in Beirut last Saturday night, and it brought back bad memories. Apparently it was supporters of the Loyalists (to the government, as opposed to the Opposition) who were shooting in the air to celebrate Saad Hariri's and Walid Jumblat's (Loyalist leaders) addresses to the crowds. I read the text of the speeches they gave, and they both made it clear that if need be, they are ready for war. The shooting, I assume, was for emphasis.

I have promised myself not to write about Lebanese politics on this blog unless the situation is so bad that it cannot be ignored, like during the Nahr el Bared crisis. These days, I have to keep reminding myself that this is a blog that's just about development and food politics. But tension is really high, with a mega demonstration in memory of Hariri the father being planned with enormous media investments for February 14. Everybody is hoping things will not slip out of hand and that the whole thing won't end in street battles. I personally do not think this will happen.

The celebratory shooting had, however, another result than the intended show of force and readiness by the Loyalist: it undermined the neutrality of the Lebanese army, and it may very possibly have given the Opposition another excuse not to trust Michel Sleiman, the current Army Chief, who is to be the next "consensually elected" president. The public in the areas dominated by the Opposition, as well as the parents of the young people who died during Black Sunday's demonstrations, are asking why did the army not arrest the thugs who were going around Beirut shooting in the air, and in one case, shooting at the Internal Security Forces guarding the house of the speaker of the parliament (these were arrested later), when this same army shot young men burning tires in the street. Since when, they say, is burning tires in the street a deadly offense, while shooting in the streets with machine guns is acceptable.

What do the loyalists get from the escalation? There are many theories circulating (after all this is Beirut), one of them is that armed confrontation will force Hizbullah to address the difficult reality that it is heavily armed and that it promised "never to turn its arms towards Lebanon". Already its public is pressing for revenge for all those who have been killed either by the army, by Internal Security or by thugs. And even if Hizbullah can control its members, the Opposition is not exclusively made out of members of Hizbullah, and they are armed, like most other Lebanese. It will be difficult, for instance, to control the Amal people if they lose of few members to sniping or skirmishes. It is thought that armed confrontation will induce an internationalization of the crisis, which will push the "International Community" led by the US to interfere and appoint a sympathetic regime. The Maronite patriarch has already indicated that if the crisis goes on for longer, the UN should appoint a governor for Lebanon (or something to that effect).

Where is the Opposition in all that? Clearly, they are trying to avoid armed confrontations, because they will be the main (political) losers. Look at the events: Since February 14, 2005, car bombs have killed many loyalist politicians (and scores of innocent people who are not less important than the politicians), but it is almost exclusively Opposition sympathizers who have been killed in shooting incidents. They were killed by other civilians (assumed to be Loyalist thugs), the army, or internal security. And the Opposition has been able to control public anger and to prevent slippage into open war. There is a reason for that: Hizbullah will lose whatever credibility it still has as a resistance movement the moment it turns its weapons towards other Lebanese, and it will become just another sectarian militia. For many it still holds today the "resistance" high moral ground.

So what will happen if a "High Commissioner" is appointed, or if the loyalists elect a president with a 50% parliamentary majority? Among the various theories circulating is that the opposition will let things happen and will not confront heads-on any attempt to take over the government by the loyalists, with or without the help of the "International Community". Their offer to the loyalists is clear: either we rule together with veto power for all concerned parties (the President being one of them), or you rule on your own and bear responsibility for what happens later on in terms of economic regression and security degradation. A Loyalist regime will not be able to come to an agreement with Hizbullah over its weapons and it would be faced with the difficult choice of sending the army to get them or doing nothing. The military option would certainly be disastrous in terms of human and economic costs, and the army is not a clearly favored winner here. The "doing nothing" option does not appear to be acceptable to the "International Community", especially the US, who backed the loyalists in order to implement UN resolution 1559 calling for the disarmament of Hizbullah.

These scenarios all look pretty dramatic. However, the real drama is the fact that even if tomorrow Loyalists and Opposition come to an agreement, it will not change the reality for the average Lebanese. What is going on is just another round of push-pull for a further division of the country between different parties, many of whom are previous militias having demonstrated their destructive and criminal abilities throughout the 1975-1990 period. As usual, the geopolitical dynamics are put to good use by sects, confessions and their militias, in order to readjust the balance of power in Lebanon. This of course happens at the expenses of the Lebanese people, who is unfortunately taking active part in this tragedy: when Loyalists or Opposition are able to gather millions of people in the streets, there are not many Lebanese left out.

Meanwhile, the livelihoods of the people of Lebanon continue to crash, in spite of the money offered by the various parties (Saad Hariri pledged yesterday in Tripoli $53 millions in "charity", and it is no secret that Hizbullah also has a strong social program for its supporters). However, this money cannot solve much: compared to the needs, this is just scratching the surface, and it can only provide a temporary relief. There are things that only a state can do.

Look for instance at the situation of sanitation in Lebanon: A recent UN report indicates that 1/3 of the Lebanese do not have access to sanitation (no sewer systems!). Read the Arabic summary article here. Those who do have sewers are in cities, while the rural people are left without. This contributes to the infiltration of sewage into the groundwater, and contaminates the drinking water springs. But do not rejoice too quickly o city dwellers: there is NO wastewater treatment in Lebanon to speak of. All that is collected in the city sewers is thrown directly into the sea, near the shores, and then we swim in it. Many many NGOs have tried their hand at sanitation: it does not work, we need a state structure for that, and for a million reasons: economy of scale, but also sustainable maintenance.

Look also at the eternal issue of agricultural production and protectionism: I'm tired of talking about him, but at least he is consistent: the minister of Economy and (Free) Trade, Sami Haddad, is refusing to engage into talks with his Arab counterpart to allow Lebanon to establish an agricultural calendar to protect some of its production. Of course this is a form of protectionism, but the farmers argue: we have no state while all the other Arab countries have one, and we have always been neglected and the government does not do its duties in research, extension, credit and legislations for land access. So, they say, we should ask for special favored treatment. Haddad, will however prevail, apparently and according to this article, he blackmails the government into accepting his ultra liberal policies by threatening to resign, which would have very bad consequences on a government that's already hanging by a thread.

As if it was only the government that is hanging by a thread.

1 comment:

ali said...

a rather bleak assessment istaz. unfortunately, it seems to an accurate one.