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Lebanon - a cold war getting hotter all the time

Lebanon - a cold war getting hotter all the time


by Alberto Cruz, Rebelión

"Lebanon, a small country, perhaps destined to play a great part in the future, not just of the Middle East but of the whole Arab world." With that remark some friends bade me farewell over a year ago in Beirut's airport. The capital was beginning to put itself back together after the Israeli bombardments against Shi'ite districts and had witnessed something that may help better to understand what's going on now. In the Spanish capital, Madrid, the Alcobendas and San Sebastian de los Reyes districts are separated by a street. I guess the same happens in other mega-cities that have expanded through urban development and speculation, rendering municipal limits obsolete. Something similar happens in Beirut, except that there a street can be a frontier between Christian and Muslim districts.

This is the case between the Maronite Christian Ain al-Rumaneh district and the Shi'ite Shayyah district. Here some of the bloodiest lines of the Lebanese civil war were written. They are barrios where, in the Christian case the lower middle class predominate and in the Shi'ite case, working class bordering on the impoverished. According to data from the Lebanese General Union of Workers, 54% of the Lebanese population live on the borderline of poverty. The government, as one might expect, plays down this figure and reckons it at 31%. Still a significant figure in any case. However, what the government cannot deny is that the purchasing power of people in Lebanon dropped 15% in 2007. (1) And it is this situation, with a middle class slipping progressively deeper into poverty and a working class already mired in poverty where a rapprochement has taken place and even a mutual understanding that sets aside stale religious confrontation.

Early in 2006 a completely unprecedented event took place in the Lebanese political situation : the agreement between the (Christian) Free Patriotic Movement and Hizbollah (Shi'ite). Symbolically, the agreement was signed in the street separating Ain al-Rumaneh and Shayaah. Two years later, on February 6th 2008, the agreement's protagonists, Michel Aoun and Hassan Nasrallah, respectively, have re-enacted the agreement in the same place, reaffirming the validity of what was signed two years ago. An agreement that goes beyond the political context between two groupings that are in so many respects virtual opposites, but which have agreed a minimal programme and which was itself proven during the war against Israel in 2006. Many Christian neighbours of Ain al-Rumaneh, militants of the Free Patriotic Movement opened their houses to Hizbollah linked families from the Shayyah district so they could flee the Israeli bombardment of Shi'ite areas.

This link continues today. The alliance between the FPM and Hizbollah is much stronger than many think and it is what is making the Lebanese political situation take on a relevance that transcends the local context to become a point of reference for the region, and even for the whole Arab world.

Economic decline

In Lebanon, it is necessary begin talking about class conflict. One might think this is a risky concept perhaps, but the popular revolt of January 2007 against the economic policies of the neoliberal, IMF-friendly government of Fouad Siniora (2) laid a new element on the table, one that does not usually appear in analyses published on the Lebanese situation : the progressive impoverishment of the huge majority of the population to the benefit of the Christian and Sunni elite. As elsewhere in the world, the gap between rich and poor in Lebanon gets bigger every day.

According to data published in the Euromoney magazine, Lebanon has a country risk rated at 127th out of 185 - the lower the rating the greater risk for international capital. Furthermore, another negative for the country comes from rating agencies like Moody's and Standard&Poor's, which complicates the Siniora government's efforts to get low interest loans in the international markets. As if that were not enough, economically Lebanon occupies 16th place among Arab countries, out of 19. (3) These figures make quite clear the failure of the megalomaniac summits on Lebanon like the famous Donors' Conference in Paris in January 2007 (known as Paris 3) in which US$5.85bn were supposedly offered to revitalize the country's economy.

The above data express what is a daily reality for Lebanese citizens : the cost of living has reached historic highs with rises in basic products (bread, milk, rice, sugar, meat). The country is collapsing under a foreign debt of US$42bn, the situation caused by the US dollar's weakness and the alarming rises in oil prices, which all mean that the proletarianization of the majority of Lebanon's people is not far off. So a new popular revolt at the economic situation is not to be dismissed. And if that revolt happens, it won't just be a more or less peaceful or more or less violent revolt but a civil war which will no longer be only between the pro-Western forces of the March 14th coalition and the opposition represented by the March 8th coalition, rather it will be a war between classes.

In fact, the General Union of Workers has begun to demand an increase in the minimum wage to 950,000 Lebanese pounds (currently it is 300,000 or about 192 Euros) which means a tripling of the current minimum wage, unchanged since 1996. And the GUW, which has 350,000 members and supports the forces of the opposition March 8th group, has threatened a new stage of protests and strikes if their social as well as their economic demands are not met. (4) The GUW opposes the privatization of public services proposed by Siniora (among which figure those of the national electricity company Electricité du Liban; the MEA airline, the airport management company of Beirut's Rafiq Hariri international airport and the systems of water and water purification, among others) and demand immediate improvements to medical and social services.

While the government, supported by its Arab and Western allies, toughs it out, business people, alert to the gravity of things, have taken a first step and offered an increase in the minimum wage to 375,000 Lebanese pounds (243 Euros), far from what the labour unions are seeking but a significant move that seems to point the way for the paralyzed government. The business classes can see the ears of the wolf and want to slow down, if they cannot stop it, the approaching social explosion.

And in fact the situation really is explosive. Plenty of barrios in Beirut only have power 6 hours a day. Although almost all districts suffer power cuts, regardless of whether they are Christian, Sunni or Shi'ite, it is the Shi'ite districts that are worst affected and it is here where families are too poor to pay for diesel generators to generate electric light. On the other hand the luxury districts of Beirut have electricity 20 hours a day. And in the rest of the country the situation is the same. For example in the Bekaa valley, a traditional Hizbollah stronghold, the power is off from 6pm onwards. This has already caused a small revolt which was put down by the army on January 27th, with several deaths in an incident which is being investigated and for which various soldiers and officers of the Lebanese army are under arrest.

Already wokers' organizations, like that of the taxi drivers, have carried out blockades of highways in protest at the increase in fuel prices. Nonetheless, those taxi drivers' protest was not joined by their memebrs in the Sunni district of Hamra, which points to a possible split among workers along political-religious lines. And most recently, on March 17th, workers in the MEA airline company staged a sit-down strike in Beirut's international airport protesting against privatization plans. (5)

The US fleet, NATO and UNIFIL

It is in this context that one should see the presence of the US fleet, headed by the aircraft carrier USS Cole, positioned in international waters off Beirut. It is not just an alert to Syria as some have interpreted it, nor an attempt to distract attention from the Israeli repression in Gaza as others have remarked, but rather a clear attempt to intervene in the internal affairs of Lebanon, a clear armed reinforcement of Siniora's neoliberal government and a clear intimidation with the threat of military intervention of the popular and patriotic forces opposed to the government. In particular it is a direct threat against Hizbollah after the Secretary General of that political-military movement declared at the funeral of the assassinated Imad Mughniye that if Israel wanted open war then it would have it.

As Thierry Meissan said recently (6) the US ships in the region, like their refueling vessels, belong to the US Sixth Fleet, in other words NATO's Mediterranean fleet. And the UNIFIL ships are also part of NATO. A subtle deployment whose objective is to sit alongside Lebanon (where they have in mind the project of a military base at Kleilat, in the north of the country, close to the Narh al Bared Palestinian camp) and "to protect Israel from a victorious and threatening Hizbollah" because the US is aware that "the correlation of forces has changed in the Middle East : the Israeli army, which until a little while ago seemed invincible, failed in Lebanon in 2006 and has just failed again in Gaza in 2008".

It is surprising to note the attitude of the forces supporting the Siniora government. Not one word of criticism or reproach at the naval deployment and more importantly in a document made public to coincide with March 14th, the name adopted by the coalition in memory of the 2005 demonstrations calling for the departure of Syrian troops, there is no mention of Israel's responsibility for the war of 2006 nor for the war's destructive consequences nor the avalanche of refugees it provoked. Nor does it mention the occupation by Israel of the Shebaa Farms despite this being included by the Siniora government, supported by the March 14th coalition, in the 7 point document handed to the UN during the 2006 war as a condition of accepting the cease-fire.(7) A document ratified by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in his last report on Lebanon (8) where as usual he again inclines to the Israeli side and blames Hizbollah and the Palestinian organizations the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-Fatah General Command and Fatah al-Intifada for refusing to disarm.

Precisely in the Shebaa Farms area, Unifil troops carried out a military exercise between March 3rd and 9th. The manoeuvres, described as "training" were carried out in the Aarqoub area and the zone was chosen "to familiarize Unifil troops with the landscape in preparation for whatever contingency in security developments along the Israeli frontier." (9) It is worth remembering that this is not the Israeli frontier but occupied territory Lebanon claims as its own.

At the same time, continuing from the printed source quoted above, the French contingent did the same in other southern areas like Abbasiyeh, Mari, Ain, Wazzani and the Hamames hills. It is not the first time the French have done something similar : already in August 2007 they carried out similar exercises in the town of Tiri, near the Israeli frontier. The aim was "to intercept an enemy trying to cross the Blue Line (the Israel-Lebanon frontier) and attack areas under Unifil protection." In this military exercise Leclerc tanks were used and it ended with "the detention of dozens of terrorists". According to Colonel Chaptal, in charge of the exercise , the term "enemy" referred to "any person (in the South of Lebanon) threatening or obstructing the implementation of Resolution 1701 of the UN Security Council. (10)

The Lebanese situation is very fragile, but for now the opposition forces are acting with a very cool head. The forces supporting the Siniora government place all their hope in a US intervention - leader of the Lebanese Forces organization Samir Geagea has said "the US guarantees Lebanon's independence 100%". (11) Meanwhile, the opposition maintain its plans for a government of national unity able to prepare a new electoral law based on proportional representation, a democratic secular State, a determined struggle against corruption and bribery, peaceful co-existence to eliminate sectarianism, condemnation of political assassinations and other proposals.

One has to remember that the election for a new President has now been postponed 16 times and that the post is vacant since November. The consensus candidate is current army chief Michel Suleiman, a man not at all to the liking of the US. Suleiman is accepted by the opposition forces so long as his appointment is accompanied by a renewal of the Cabinet with an equitable sharing of posts between the March 14th forces and the March 8th forces, something Siniora opposes. The Prime Minister and his party members have threatened to name their own candidate with a simple majority (against the provisions of the Constitution), an appointment that would be supported by the United States and some Arab States like Saudi Arabia.

The latest proposal to escape this heated impasse, which gets hotter by the day, was rejected by Siniora. It consisted of an equality of Ministers, 10 for each of the March 14th and March 8th factions . Now the reason is becoming clear : the US is pressing supposedly independent Shi'ites to agree to form part of Siniora's government. (12) According to the Constitution it is not possible to form a legitimate government if one of the religious confessions is not represented and now there are no Shi'ites represented following the resignation of the Hizbollah Ministers. A "clear provocation" as the Christian leader Michel Aoun has described it and a new demonstration of Western interference in Lebanon.

The presence of the United States and Nato and the Unifil exercises are elements that move things in one direction only, preparations for a new war in which the objective will be the total defeat of the opposition forces and especially Hizbollah as a political and military factor not just in Lebanon but in the Middle East.

Notes

(1) The Daily Star, 12 de marzo de 2008.
(2) Alberto Cruz, “La revuelta popular libanesa contra el neoliberalismo” http://www.rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=45681
(3) The Daily Star, 12 de marzo de 2008.
(4) The Daily Star, 15 de marzo de 2008.
(5) The Daily Star, 18 de marzo de 2008.
(6) Voltairenet, 10 de marzo de 2008.
(7) Ya Libnan, 14 de marzo de 2008.
(8) Punto 57 del Informe del Secretario General sobre la aplicación de la resolución 1701 (2006) del Consejo de Seguridad. S/2008/135. 28 de febrero de 2008.
(9) The Daily Star, 13 de marzo de 2008.
(10) Alberto Cruz, “La ONU en Líbano: el cementerio del elefante” http://www.nodo50.org/ceprid/territorios/mo/mo27.htm
(11) Ya Libnan, 18 de marzo de 2008.
(12) The Daily Star, 19 de marzo de 2008.

*************

Alberto Cruz is a journalist, political analyst and writer specializing in international relations - (albercruz@eresmas.com).

Translation copyleft by tortilla con sal

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