Friday, April 29, 2011

Lebanese Fear

By Walid Choucair
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 29/04/2011

Fear is prevailing in Lebanon, among all of the country’s factions and groups. They are fearful of the likely repercussions of transformations in the Arab world. This fear is growing amid the course that popular protests are taking in the neighboring country that is influential in Lebanon’s political life – Syria – and the oppressive and bloody reaction that the authorities there have had to the protests.

As usual, the Lebanese are divided in their fear and anxiety about their future, even though this should presumably unite them. In Lebanon, one group is fearful that the course of Arab transformations will undermine its power and weaken its dominant role, even if this is based on a surplus of military force, which has played a role in the domestic balance of power in recent years – this group is represented by Hezbollah and its allies. It is natural for the party to be worried that the Arab transformations will lead to a new regional order that will allow many Arab countries to reclaim their regional roles. This is after their retreat from these roles allowed Iran to fill the vacuum in the Arab state order, by relying on tools that it had succeeded in cultivating in recent decades, the most important among them being Hezbollah itself. One of the first signs of Arab states reclaiming these roles has come via the significant success by the new Egyptian Foreign Ministry in achieving an inter-Palestinian reconciliation, which the regime of Hosni Mubarak had failed to do over the last four years. This undeniable success, as long as Israel is a leading opponent, was accompanied by Cairo’s policy of restoring balance to its regional relations: discussing the resumption of diplomatic relations with Tehran, at the level of ambassadors, and restoring Saudi-Egyptian coordination, and Gulf-Egyptian coordination. This policy has been characterized by a new dynamism this time, based on political and economic support from Riyadh for the new Egyptian regime, while this activity has had an impact in important regional arenas, from Iraq to Palestine, and perhaps Lebanon, over the medium-term. In short, Egypt’s return to playing its role is leading to a reduction of the role that Iran used to play in the absence of the former.

There is growing fear about what is taking place in Syria on the part of Hezbollah and its allies, even if we do not openly see the questions and daily attention by their leaders to internal Syrian affairs. If the hearts of Hezbollah leaders are with the regime, then their minds are leading them to hope that the regime meets the public’s demands, so that it can ensure its continuity. This group is fearful that if the regime is weakened, or if the developments lead to a drawn-out domestic crisis, in which further confrontations are seen, then Syria will drown in division. This in turn will have an impact in Lebanon in terms of an escalation of Sunni-Shiite contradictions, and the party will lose Syria, its primary source of support for all its policies in Lebanon, as well as the capacities it has relied on to carry out these policies, against local rivals and their foreign allies. In other words, Hezbollah is worried that it might lose out in terms of the strength of its geographical depth, politically, militarily and in terms of its armaments, since Syria represents this natural bridge between Tehran and Beirut. It is worried that its Lebanese rivals will become bolder, under the slogan of “rejecting the power of (Hezbollah’s) weapons” on the domestic scene; this rallying-cry has harmed Hizbullah’s image and is painful for the party to hear, even though it ignores the rhetoric. Or, Israel might benefit from this situation, to launch a war that it has promised Lebanon, in the absence of a minimum level of domestic solidarity, as accusing the other side of treason remains prevalent.

Meanwhile, the March 14 camp also has it fears. The members of this coalition fear that the Syrian regime, and Hezbollah along with it, might respond to the possibility of being weakened by developments in Syria by adopting a policy of oppression in Lebanon, as in Syria. This policy would see March 14 members accused of intervening in the Syrian protests, even though the leaders of March 8 and its public are unconvinced by these accusations. However, the accusations serve as a means by which Hezbollah can enhance its grip on power in Lebanon, and this involves certain measures and steps. But the fears of March 14 go farther than this. Although its leaders feel no solidarity with the Syrian regime, due to the multiple blows its leaders have suffered from Damascus in recent years, these groups share with March 8 a fear that a drawn-out confrontation in Syria between the regime and its opponents, and its spilling over into clashes with multiple aspects, will lead to an escalation in sectarian tensions in Lebanon, as Hezbollah devotes itself to a parallel, hard-line policy, to retain power.

Some people prefer to urge a resumption of dialogue in order to avoid civil strife, which both parties fear equally. However, these individuals neglect the fact that the initiative for dialogue lies with the group that has undermined dialogue, namely Hezbollah and its allies. The party felt that there was no longer a need for dialogue after it succeeded with Syria in scuttling the Saudi-Syrian political settlement at the beginning of January, when it brought down the Lebanese government. However, it failed to establish an alternative political formula, which is evident today in the stumbling process of forming a new Cabinet. The tardiness in evaluating all of these developments means only that opportunities to treat the fears in Lebanon are being wasted.

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