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Elusive unity - An age-old dilemma is at the heart of the debate on Hizbullah's weapons


Elusive unity
An age-old dilemma is at the heart of the debate on Hizbullah's weapons,

Al-Ahram Weekly
reports Lucy Fielder from Beirut
5-11 October 2006

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Mohamed Kreyem's electrical parts shop is a stone's throw from the Koreitem Palace of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri, western Beirut. The former prime minister, whose assassination last year many Lebanese blamed on Hizbullah's Syrian backers, gazes sternly from a poster in the window.

So does Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, just above him. "Hizbullah is the only group working for the benefit of the country, and to rebuild the country. Nasrallah is a believer, he's working in the right way, an Arab way, whatever his relations with Iran and Syria," Kreyem says.

Hariri, the father, wanted Lebanon to be strong, he says, so there was no contradiction in displaying the two pictures. "But I don't much like his son Saad's politics. The international forces they brought in are to protect Israel, not us, even though we're the ones always being hit by Israel." As a boy, Kreyem said he had fled successive Israeli invasions of his native south.

Othman Itani, who owns a nearby parking lot, believes only the government should have weapons. "Nasrallah says they have 20,000 rockets -- who do you think you are scaring? Israel has two air forces. It will destroy Lebanon and go home. You are frightening the Lebanese, only," he says. His booth is plastered with pictures of the Hariris -- senior and junior.

"Since 1948 we've been fighting Israel," Itani says. "Other Arab countries have peace with Israel, so why is it only us fighting? Peace with Israel would open up everything for us. No one is thinking about how much this is all costing us."

Although both men are Sunni, they sum up two opposing camps in Lebanon's polarised society. How should Lebanon protect itself, given the weakness of its army? By maintaining a military deterrence of sorts through Hizbullah's weapons, though that may risk another attack by an Israel? Or through Western allegiances, perhaps peace with Israel, and the supposed international protection they would bring?

"There's a tendency among Lebanese politicians, including 14 March, which says, 'We don't want a strong Lebanese army' and a wish that Lebanon would never be involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict," says analyst Fawwaz Traboulsi, who helped lead Palestinian and leftist resistance to Israel's 1982 invasion. "To my mind, we paid the price more than we would have if we had taken seriously that we are part of that conflict."

With Israel on one side and Syria on the other, and a population split between looking east and west for its alliances, staying out of it all has proved wishful thinking. Traboulsi advocates persuading Iranian-backed Hizbullah to allow its seasoned fighters to become an elite unit under central army command in return for a greater say in national defence.

Where the Sunnis lie in all this is an enigma. Traditionally the backbone of Lebanon's urban, merchant class, the sect, which forms 25 per cent of the population, has typically shunned politics and played little role in the 1975-90 civil war. But after Hariri's assassination, Sunnis took to the streets and became leaders of the US-supported 14 March anti-Syrian movement. Saad Hariri's Future Movement commands the parliamentary majority, allied with Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt and Christian leader Samir Geagea. Hariri ally Fouad Al-Seniora heads the government, always a Sunni post under the sectarian political system.

But for many ordinary Sunnis, the government's US-backing sits uncomfortably with their traditional support for the Palestinians and Arab causes, especially after the US-backed Israeli bombing of Lebanon. Their broad support for the government as tensions rise cannot be taken for granted.

At his "Divine Victory" rally on 22 September, Nasrallah hinted at coming battles. Accusing the leadership of being unable to protect Lebanon, he said working towards a national unity government would be Hizbullah's "new project". Bringing in allied Maronite Christian leader Michel Aoun is seen as Hizbullah's main aim. By adding Aoun-backed cabinet ministers to Hizbullah's two, the allies hope for a blocking one- third minority in government. Nasrallah said Hizbullah's weapons could only be relinquished if the state was strong.

Nasrallah commands the loyalty of nearly all Shia, Lebanon's largest sect at just under 40 per cent. And a survey released this week by respected pollster Abdo Saad showed Aoun was clear favourite to be president, who has to be Christian Maronite. Forty-five per cent of Lebanese across the sects chose him; among Christians he scored 39 per cent. No one else came close.

Any support Aoun lost among his Christian support-base -- which appears to be between five and 10 per cent -- for allying with Hizbullah despite his anti-Syrian past, he has gained in Shia and other support. "Aoun can afford to lose a few per cent. He's now got Shia support and apart from Nasrallah he's more popular than any other leader," analyst Amal Saad- Ghorayeb says.

Nasrallah's rally, which mustered anywhere between 800,000 to a million people, could presage a bitter campaign ahead, said Saad-Ghorayeb, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment's new Middle East Centre in Beirut. The poll showed 70 per cent of Lebanese supported a national unity government, including a surprising 71 per cent of Christians and, more predictably, more than 90 per cent of Shia.

"Christians and Shia clearly don't see that they're politically represented," she said. "There's been a lot of political pressure mounting (for a national unity government) and this war of words has escalated. Now with these results you find that the public shares that view and that these groups could unleash their publics on the street," she said.

Oussama Safa, head of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies also predicted things would heat up. "I think Ramadan will be quiet, but after that Hizbullah and its supporters will try to change the government," he said.

Hariri hit back at Nasrallah's demands last week at a Ramadan Iftar meal. "We reject any calls for a change of government by undemocratic and unconstitutional means," he said. He called Nasrallah's address to the rally an "unacceptable local translation of (Syrian President) Bashar Al-Assad's speech".

Safa said Hariri is preparing for a push against his government. "So we're seeing an increase in the rhetoric. And there is genuine impatience. There's no opportunity in the offing for disarming Hizbullah". The government's war-time performance is viewed as poor. It disowned and implicitly blamed the "resistance" for sparking the war by seizing two Israeli soldiers, which cost it some popularity. Hariri was derided for being abroad for the whole conflict, and corruption and mismanagement characterise government aid efforts for the displaced even in much of the pro-government media. "14th March as a movement has pretty much fizzled out," Safa said.

"Most of the Sunnis are with Hariri, but there are pockets of dissidents," Safa said. Those are mainly in the north (Tripoli's outskirts and Akkar), and the west, namely parts of the Bekaa and Hermel. It is unlikely to be coincidence that these are poorer areas, where the Future Movement's business orientation is of little use, but pan-Arab views strike a chord. from Egypt's Al-Ahram