Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hizballah's Menace and Lebanon's Christians

Michael Young provides incisive commentary on the Hizballah campaign to weaken Christian resistance to its militant projects in Lebanon by attacking, first, the Presidency and, second, the Maronite Patriachy, in favor of its nefarious stooge, Michel Aoun. Read the whole thing below, its well worth it:
The barrage of verbal attacks organized by the opposition against Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir is worrisome. Sfeir's partisans are unlikely to close the airport road or assail opposition neighborhoods, but they should at least be aware that this concerted campaign, whatever the intentions behind it, mainly serves to discredit the one individual who has most consistently defended the Lebanese state and its sovereignty.

The opposition has been incensed with Sfeir for some time. His endorsement of a "centrist" bloc for Parliament was viewed by Michel Aoun as a way of strengthening both President Michel Sleiman and March 14 at his expense. Hizbullah agreed, and during the recent elections the party voted massively in Aoun's favor in the Jbeil and Baabda districts, where centrist candidates had the best chance of making a breakthrough.

It is the patriarch's statement on the eve of the elections that riled the opposition most, however, provoking a riposte from Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Sfeir said on June 6, "Today we are facing a threat to the Lebanese entity and its Arab identity, requiring alertness." This reference was seen by the opposition as a warning to Christian voters that Iranian influence in Lebanon would rise if the opposition won. Since then, a bevy of opposition politicians, many of them Maronites, have echoed Nasrallah in criticizing the patriarch. The latest reaction came on Monday from the vice president of the Higher Shiite Council, Abd al-Amir Qabalan, who asked for "clarifications" on the comment.

This request for clarification was amusing. Sfeir could not have been clearer. However, there remains some question as to whether the patriarch's words were as decisive as many believe. We don't do opinion polls on these things (a relief after the shoddy surveys of the pre-election period), but at best Sfeir only hardened doubts that Nasrallah and his Iranian sponsors had already created in Christian minds. Perhaps Qabalan should ask for clarification from Nasrallah about what he meant when he described May 7 as a "glorious day;" or from Nasrallah's deputy, Naim Qassem, when he said that Hizbullah would "arm, arm, and arm," regardless of what the United Nations said; or from Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who pointed out that an opposition victory "would change the situation in the region and would create new fronts for strengthening the resistance." Sfeir would not have had the impact that he did on voters had not these startling declarations been issued first.

The Aounists in particular have been hypocritical above and beyond their usual norm on Sfeir. For example, an Aounist candidate, at a private dinner before the elections, roundly complained that Nasrallah's "glorious day" speech would lose him and his colleagues the elections. But this week he was on television complaining about Sfeir's behavior, adding that he was shocked to see the way voters during his campaign stops were expressing their fears of an opposition victory. But if he was disturbed by what Nasrallah said, surely his voters could be as well.

Then you have to wonder about those Aounist parliamentarians who once made Bkirki their second home, particularly in the days of the Qornet Shehwan gathering. Today, not one of them can work up enough nerve to make a public statement in defense of Sfeir, for fear of annoying Michel Aoun. They say cowardice has no color, but in this case it's bright orange.

The patriarch merely confirmed the deep misgivings that an increasing number of Lebanese have about the opposition's project, which they see as a lot of empty wrapping around a very firm goal: defense of Hizbullah's weapons. Aoun has lost much ground in convincing Christians that he can stand up to Hizbullah, that his so-called change and reform program should be taken seriously, and that he can yet unite the Christians. A virus has entered the Aounist movement and it is slowly but surely making its way through the system, closing down the circuits.

Hizbullah is aware of this, which why Nasrallah, in his first post-election speech, suggested that the opposition still represented a numerical majority in Lebanon. The party had relied on Aoun to provide it with a Christian fig leaf for its weapons. Realizing that the general was losing ground among his coreligionists, Nasrallah shifted to a new game board, that of numbers. Even there, however, you could sincerely doubt his math, when there were no elections to speak of in Baalbek-Hermel and much of the South, and when the possibility of emigrants voting makes categorical arguments on majoritarianism dubious.

The premeditated effort to isolate the patriarch seems to be part of a broader scheme by the opposition to offset its mediocre election results. If the Christians are moving away from Aoun, then Bkirki becomes one of the poles around which they gather - the other being the presidency. And just as the opposition went after Michel Sleiman before the elections, they are doing the same with Sfeir today. Their goal is evidently to intimidate the holders of independent Christian power, so that Aoun, who is in urgent need of salvaging, can control more political space.

If that's the plan, it won't work. A declining Aoun is not about to regain popularity through the efforts of the one party, Hizbullah, that most scares Christians, and by assaulting traditional bastions of Christian authority. The Lebanese in general and Christians in particular are, by most accounts, tired of the polarized politics of recent years. On that terrain, Sfeir remains significantly more potent than Michel Aoun, for the patriarch best incarnates the longing for a temperate middle.


  1. This struggle will go on for some time to come since essentially it is a conflict between two camps with opposing visions. One side believes in Lebanon as a modern democratic state and so an end in itself , while the others view Lebanon merely as a means to their greater authoritarian and rigid vision of an islamic society ruled by the faqih.

    Ghassan Karam

  2. This is the only thing in my mind while reading this article or whatever, Bull sh*t bull sh*t and more Bull Shi*t.

    But i have to admit it, you know how to write.

    And Ghassan Karam do you know what democracy is? You have to be intitled for your own opinion wether the other side likes it or not. In the end we're all fighting for the same thing you ignorant fool.

    We all want a modern,democratic lebanon to welcome its people wether they are muslims,christians or even none believers.

    Don't be such a rasist!

  3. Blacksmith Nick7:25 PM

    "In the end we're all fighting for the same thing..."

    Care to elaborate?

  4. Teta,
    Normally I would not deign to respond to someone who exhibits such low levels of civility as you do in your post but here is what Democracy is defined to be by a moslem Arab:
    The chief characteristics of the democratic system are:
    1. Freedom of speech, whereby citizens are able openly to state their views on public issues without impediment or fear, regardless of whether such views are critical or supportive of the government. In the democratic system, it is important for officials to know how the people feel about policies they adopt and decisions they make.
    2. Free elections in which citizens regularly, in accordance with precise and constitutionally protected procedures, elect people they entrust with the affairs of governance. Elections legitimize all levels of representation, from the city council to the presidency of the state.
    3. Majority rule and minority rights: In the democratic system, decisions are made by the majority, based on the general conviction that the judgment of the majority is more likely to be right than that of the minority. But majority rule does not give a free hand to the majority to do as it wants. Embedded in the democratic principle is the commitment that certain fundamental citizens' rights shall not be violated – for example, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the free exercise of religion.
    4. Political parties in the democratic system play an important role. By means of political parties, people freely associate on the basis of their convictions about how to achieve a fulfilling life for themselves, their family, and their posterity.
    5. Separation between the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary, whereby constitutional checks and balances among these three branches of government prevent potential exploitative practices.
    6. Constitutional authority is the supreme authority on the validity of any statutory law or executive directive. Constitutional authority means supremacy of the rule of law, not the rule of individuals, in the resolution of any public matter.
    7. Freedom of action for individuals and groups, provided they do not infringe on the common good. From this derives the freedom to own property, the freedom to work, the freedom to pursue personal goals, and the freedom to form various associations and corporations.

    Ghassan Karam

  5. Hey Blacksmith,

    Could you please help me out on this. Here are the simple facts:
    The Maronite Patriarch, violating one political principle ("Separation of State and Church" that the French introduced into our system) and one legal rule ("Electoral silence" 24 hours ahead of the elections) said : "Today we are facing a threat to the Lebanese entity and its Arab identity".

    You claim that a request for clarification is "amusing" because Sfeir could not have been clearer... I agree with you on one point, his political siding couldn't be any clearer, he was telling Christians to vote against the FPM.
    But that is not the clarification anyone is asking for. What many would like to know is how he reads the "threat to the Lebanese entity and its Arab identity".
    I personally find this slogan extremely interesting because it brings together two older (and opposing) slogans. Pierre Gemayel's "Defending the Lebanese entity against the Palestinian threats", and Kamal Joumblatt's "Defending Lebanon's Arab identity from the Isolationist program".
    But in both of these statement, the threat and the threatener are named. In Nasrallah Sfeir's statement, the villain is unnamed.
    So here are my hypothesis:
    - Is it Hezbollah? But in that case, the Christians couldn't swing the vote in places where Hezbollah candidates were awaiting their "mubaya3a".
    - Is it the FPM? Can one seriously imagine Michel Aoun or any member of his Christian bloc voting for the establishment of Wilayad el-Fakih in Lebanon? Or asking for the dismantling of the Lebanese State?
    I honestly just don't get it.

  6. Hey WL,

    Welcome to the blog, both in the comments section and on the sidebars :)

    For starters, I wonder if people have noticed that this is a Michael Young piece, that we've quoted in full. Its not an "original production". In any case I agree with the piece wholeheartedly so I'll try to answer some questions and maybe make some comments.

    The Patriach is not a leader of a militia or a political party, so it occurs to me that if we're going to start keeping track of who is violating the separation of church and state, we should probably start with the finger waving cleric who starts a war or two every once in a while. But yes, back to the Patriach, a clergyman that gives a sermon every once in a while and/or gives the church's stance on different issues which he deems a threat to his flock's safety and moral standing. You know, issues like civil marriage, abortion, empowering a fundamentalist militia with a control center firmly integrated within the Iranian Revolution Guard (IRG) structure and which is looking to "dilute" Christian (specifically Maronite, if you want) political prerogatives (whether they be "good" or "bad") currently in the system.

    As regards the statement itself, the story is in the interpretation and not in the statement itself. I mean don't you find it curious that everyone, FPMers and all, found it to be so specifically aimed against them and Hizballah's accumulation of power? A dry reading of the statement could have just as easily pointed at Israel as the culprit. Michael Young breaks down why it was interpreted the way it was, and in every case it is Hizballah's actions that are the catalyst for the interpretation so widely adopted.

    WL, you don't "vote in" Wilayat al Faqih, it is a modus operandi that is imposed through violence (e.g., May 7) or the threat of violence (every single day Hizballah maintains its arms, and every single statement it utters while it is holding those arms). It is a system in which Hizballah would continue to operate as an authority onto itself, fully integrated into the (IRG) infrastructure but controlling Lebanese land - and lives (not a very appealing prospect if you ask me).

    Michel Aoun is the group's greatest enabler because he affords the cover of a multi-sectarian coalition. There have been tons of (good) blog posts, editorials, articles, policy papers, and books written on the subject, if you really don't get it then maybe its time you read some of them (you can start by continuing to read posts in Michael Young's Column and add to them posts on Across the Bay and the now silent pages of [From] Beirut to the Beltway - they're all in the sidebar).

  7. Anonymous12:21 PM

    Thanks for your reply Blacksmith (and for the add)
    I'm actually quite familiar with Michael Young's arguments. But I do have problems keeping up with editorialists rehashing the same ideas because they are countless and extremely productive (quantity-wise).
    Familiarity and repetition doesn't make them more convincing, to me. Their logical flaws, presumptions, shortcuts, muddled arguments and unabashed (& self-righteous) bias are too many for me to handle.

    For Michael Young, the story isn't in the interpretation, but in the reaction to what he considers to be a clear message. Nowhere in the article does he "breaks down why it was interpreted the way it was". This is not the point of his article. He is only interesting in refuting and denouncing the hostile reactions to it.
    But I agree with you, the message's target is not spelled out. it is actually not even hinted at. It is surmised, assumed. One can only understand it by looking at the Patriarch's continued political positioning (What Young curiously qualifies as the "temperate middle"). But that's where the difficulty starts. If it is Hezbollah the Patriarch targets, then the message is rather useless, because christians voters can only have a sway in the election of five Shiite MPs, most being Amal candidates (and none Hezbollah's). So if it is not Hezbollah, then it must be Aoun's FPM perceived as a surrogate.

    This claim is problematic, unless you consider Michel Aoun as Hezbollah's "nefarious stooge" (i.e. a wicked or criminal who serves merely to support or assist others, particularly in doing unpleasant work) and the FPM Hezbollah's "enabler because it affords the cover of a multi-sectarian coalition". But on what arguments (hints, proves) do you base your judgement?

    As for what you say about wilayat el-fakih, it is not a modus operandi, it's a politico-theological concept. And it certainly isn't the ideological cover of Hezbollah's work in Lebanon or the determining logic behind its actions. These are based on "Resistance", armed resistance or more specifically, a Shiite anti-Israeli militia.
    So the problem we have is with Hezbollah's weapons. By insisting on the link with Iran, you overdetermine the importance of the geopolitical factor (as the Anti-Hariri overdetermine it with regards to Saudi influence) and you underdetermine a give political fact: the overwhelming majority of Shiites support Hezbollah and its weapons (even if most Lebanese Shiites do not support Hezbollah's religious stand). I believe this kind of support is reminiscent of the Christian support the Lebanese Forces enjoyed in the 1980s under the leadership of Bachir Gemayel.
    Wilayat el fakih is not the issue (it's just a political ploy most christian parties and politicians use to frighten Christians into voting "against the FPM", the way the FPM uses the naturalisation of Palestinians to frighten christians into voting "against March XIV". I'd rather see political accusations for what they are.
    I'm honestly tired of baseless accusations, wordplay, rhetorical games and the Mawa2ef culture (ex: "We are against Hezbollah's weapon". Sure, so am I, but how do you count on disarming that party. Or the more recent "We are against the reelection of Nabih Berri". Sure, so am I, but what did you do to prevent it, did you try to convince your allies? did you try support an alternative Shiite politician?). Our politicians use and abuse them. Let's not do the same.

    p.s. Oddly enough, Nasrallah (not Sfeir, but Hassan) is not a cleric. He interrupted his religious education to take up arms. He's as much a cleric as Geagea is a doctor, or me for that matter, though i'm a peacenik).

  8. Arabic Coffee Pot12:06 AM


    You need hints to prove that Aoun gives Hezbollah cover? How about the big hint that he is allied to them? How about another big hint called the MOU where he gives them sanction for their weapons?

    Do you need more?

  9. WL,

    Now I'm the one who doesn't understand what you're trying to say, or ask, rather.

    Are you asking for proof that Hizballah is a menace? Or are you asking for proof that Michel Aoun acts as an enabler to the menace?

    If you're question is the former then I recommend you start by thinking about what it means to have a state monopoly over weapons. Here's a hint, the Army (which is the instrument of that monopoly) reports to a democratically elected government, so that those weapons are used with the concensus of the elected majority. Tell me what accountability you have with Hizballah!? Here's another hint: NONE! They are accountable to those who supply them with funding/training/weapons, not to the Lebanese people.

    If your question is the latter ... well how about you start with Arabic Coffee Pot's answer.

  10. The FPM's support among its christian constituency has suffered tremendously due to its failed policies and tactics. The perception that it gives cover to hizb is a symptom of that failure and has caused many christian voters to look "the other way". It is up to the leadership of that party to decide if it is worth it to continue its support of a pariah party like hizb or better to change course and genuinely return to its "declared goals" that were embraced by a solid majority of christian voters in 2005.

  11. Anonymous3:37 PM

    Hey Blacksmith
    Sorry for taking so long to answer you. I have been rather busy and have hardly found enough time to write on my own blog.
    The topic we are discussing is a crucial and complicated one. And I'm a rather slow writer. I honestly need two hours to set my ideas straight and produce an argument that is not too abstruse. So I will do it this weekend.
    As I said earlier, I don't buy political accusations (from whatever side they are spawn), especially if they fit too well in the general framework of public debates. There are too many interest involved and one encounters so many logical flaws, presumptions, shortcuts, muddled arguments and unabashed (& self-righteous) bias. This is expected from political speeches. But I become less tolerant when I see them echoed within intellectual sectors.
    There are at least 9 different arguments in the last two Jade and Coffe Pot's comments. And they are simply juxtaposed. In my coming answer, I will try to show that they form no argumentation, just two convenient accusations.

  12. OK, I look forward to it, and I encourage others to join in with their comments :)

  13. Anonymous11:05 PM

    Let's cut to the chase, my disagreement with Coffee & Jade covers 4 of their statements:
    1. "Aoun gives Hezbollah cover"
    Now this statement begs a lot of questions. What does Michel Aoun exactly "cover"?
    Hezbollah's actions (the 2006 war and the takeover of Beirut on May 7, 2008) and Hezbollah's weapons, you might say. How does he do that? By declaring his support!
    In other words, he "covers" their action with words! It's a very interesting point. In what way does he protect their weapons? How does he disguise their (wrong)doings? With words!
    That's taking JL Austin's speach acts theory a bit too far. It shows how politics have come to be seen in Lebanon (at least in some circles) as successive "speech acts". It's confusing our "consensual democracy" with a logocracy. That's what I call the "Mawa2ef culture". Emile Lahoud represented it quite well. I remember one of his speeches (or press conferences) in which he enumerated all the accomplishments of his tenure. All he stated were Mawa2ef!
    But how effective are words? What do they offer? Legitimacy, you might say. Now that's a whole argument in itself. What makes Hezbollah's weapons legitimate. Who decides on their legitimacy? What is the likely consequences of them being unanimously declared illegitimate?
    Hezbollah once said that it will never turn its weapons to the interior. And it did. And it is quite proud of it. This should "delegitimize" its weapons... don't u agree? well, what consequences did it have? they got what they wanted, and they still have a wide support within the Shiite community (equal if not superior to the support Hariri has amongst Sunnis and Jumblatt amongsts Druze.

    2. The MOU sanctions Hezbollah's weapons
    I've noticed that the same people who argue that the MOU (Memorendum of Understanding) is a meaningless piece of paper, also argue that it gives a sanction to Hezbollah's weapons. Now that is quite an accomplishment for a meaningless paper. Now let's look at the time when this MOU was agreed upon. The FPM was the largest political formation in the opposition. Aoun was the only communal leader in opposition. Hezbollah on the other hand was part of the governing coalition. Its weapons were sanctioned by the quadripartite electoral alliance and the government's policy statement. What did the MOU offer more than that? Doesn't it actually offer less? How can an opposition force "sanction the weapons" of one of the pillars of the government!
    If you look more closely into the exact context of the MOU, it was at a time when the US was pressing March XIV® to "isolate" Hezbollah. How effective do you think such a policy is? Is Hezbollah doing to say "ok, i've been cornered rhetorically and isolated politically: here are my weapons"?! come on!
    The most notable effect of the MoU is bring together those who feared Hezbollah and those who loathed Michel Aoun. Fear and loathing are not the best combination for thoughtful analysis.

  14. Anonymous11:05 PM

    3. Hizballah is a menace
    A menace for what? for whom? Don't give me the "State monopoly over weapons" argument. We saw quite clearly during the two weeks of May 2008 that the State didn't have a monopoly over arms (as if we needed proof). Amal and the PSP turned out to be quite armed and trained as well. And I'm not even taking into account the rearmament of Fateh in and outside the camps, or the fact that salafist groups are still finding "ways" to arm and train. But let's go back to May 2009. What did the army do? NOTHING. Why? because since the establishment of the Chehab doctrine of "neutrality", the army does NOT "report to a democratically elected government" in case of civil conflict. In 1958, Chehab refused to obey orders and were it not for the US army, the civil war would have gone on undeterminably. And when in 1973 the army was prevented from finishing its job with the PLO, it decided to arm and train Lebanese citizens to do it.
    So yes, we do have a "weapon" problem. but it doesn't stop at Hezbollah. Hezbollah is just the most effective war machine Lebanon has ever had. So what's your strategy for making it less menacing? keep on abusing it verbally, and then act surprised if it responds violently.

    4. Michel Aoun acts as an enabler to the menace
    How does he do it, practically? What has he actually enabled Hezbollah to do? To rephrase it, what wouldn't Hezbollah have done if it didn't have Michel Aoun's support?!
    I think it's high time some people went beyond their Aounophobia, and the constraints of the rigid frames politicians have set up for them.

  15. Hey WL,

    Thanks for the comments, I'm gonna try to make time to give you some replies ... stay tuned :P

  16. Ehhhhh

    WL, I'll be blunt. I think you've gotten too caught up in the idea that the country simply runs on slogans that are empty of all intellectual derivation and consequence.

    You miss the point.

    I'll tackle your point 1 now because I'm short on time. Aoun gives cover in a number of [very meaningful] ways, I'll point out two:

    Think back to the Hariri assassination, the first week following it, the second week following. The protests and candle light vigils that immediately followed it. Those protests brought together members from every one of the country's various sectarian communities, and featuring prominently amongst them were people from the Shiite community. Hizballah put a stop to that with the March 8th [2005] demonstration. In effect, what Hizballah did on that day [and every single day following that day] was forcefully tear the Shiite community apart from the rest of the community's Lebanese bretheren. They created sectarian tension when there was none, and they did it to serve their own ends at the expense of the communal wellbeing of the people who they claim to represent - just as they did in July 2006, just as they did in May 2008, and just as they will do in the future (you can be sure of that).

    So here was a group (Hizballah) which had gone out of its way to isolate the Shiite community, to seperate their collective experience from that of their co-nationals. The cover that Aoun provides is to mask this isolation by making it seem as if Christians share the same ideology and forward vision as Hizballah (note: I didn't say Shiites, I said Hizballah which has sought to distinguish the Shiite collective experience from the broader Lebanese experience). So thats cover.

    You want a cover in actions? Fine. Would Hizballah (along with Amal) have been able to shut Parliament down were it not for the full hearted participation of the FPM? No. What about the civil strife of January 2007? Don't the actions of the FPM amount to cover? What did the Christian community that Aoun claims to have represented have to gain from that confrontation, the ultimate aim of which was to block the establishment of the international tribunal? Nothing. It was Hizballah which had something to gain in that it was working to protect its patrons in Damascus and Tehran.

    WL, the slogans that you hear people say came from the logical, rational derivations and calculations of parties working towards certain goals.

    Its not about M14 vs M8, who has the better electoral poster, or the wittier slogan. Over the past 4 years alone how many people have died? 1,600 in the July War, over 20 assassinations and assassination attempts, another 20 terrorist bombings, 300 people in the Nahr el Bared camp, 100 people in clashes in Beirut, the Mountain, and Tripoli.

    The list goes on and on, and the blood runs higher and higher. These are the consequences of the actions and the stances of Hizballah and those who cover for them. Hizballah started the July 2006 war, they started the January 2007 riots, they started the May 2008 invasion. Their backers have a hand in Nahr el Bared and in the assassinations.

    WL, its always good to find people who question slogans and stances, and for that I commend you and encourage you. But I also encourage you to do some learning and reading about the ideas behind those stances and slogans before you pass judgement on them.

  17. Anonymous1:22 PM

    Thanks for these clarifications Jade.

    I think I wasn't very clear about what I meant about logocracy. I'll come back to that later.

    I particularly appreciated your view on the "collective experience" of March 14th. And I have a lot to say about that. You know, I lived through these events too. I slept in Martyr's square. I demonstrated for Syrian withdrawal before and after that date. Most of the people around me are March XIV® followers.
    I'll soon prepare an answer on my blog (in an entry that I have announced some time ago).
    Thanks for this comment, I hope you'll find the time to tackle the other points.

  18. Sure, let me me know when its up :)


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