When bands of pro-government hoodlums and thugs, armed with sticks, chains, knives and assault and sniper rifles, attacked students in and around the campus of the Beirut Arab University on January 25, Lebanon again peered into the abyss of civil war. But it backed away, mainly thanks to the rigorous exercise of self-restraint on the part of the opposition. The vicinity of the university campus was plunged into anarchy after an initial fight that broke out in the university cafeteria between two students, one a member of the pro-government Future Movement and the other a member of the Hizbullah-led opposition. Although the university’s security men intervened and broke up the fight in the cafeteria, members of pro-government vigilante groups and militias converged on the campus, surrounded it and assaulted students and passers-by.
The violence escalated when scores of opposition activists and students’ relatives, responding to cell-phone calls and text-messages from the besieged students pleading for help, converged from other parts of Beirut and its suburbs to try to break the siege. That prompted pro-government thugs to resort to firearms in running battles that raged for several hours. The students also cameunder fire from snipers on the rooftops of nearby buildings. By the end of the day the clashes, which the Lebanese army and police struggled to control and keep the two sides apart by firing tear-gas and volleys of live rounds into the air, had claimed the lives of four people; some 200 others were wounded.
The university clashes came only two days after three people were killed and 176 wounded in violence as pro-government street toughs set out to attack opposition activists in a nationwide strike called by the Hizbullah-led opposition. The strike paralysed the country and left the capital and other major cities and roads littered with barricades of blazing tires that produced thick palls of smoke over many parts of the country. But the strike, which had been planned as a peaceful escalation in a campaign launched on December 1 to bring down the pro-western government of prime minister Fouad Siniora, turned violent when pro-government vigilantes attacked demonstrators, sparking the worst civil violence since the end of the civil war (1975–90). Fears that pro-government factions would resort to violence in an attempt to break the protest action were on the minds of opposition leaders on the eve of the strike. In an interview on January 22, Hizbullah’s deputy secretary-general Shaykh Na’im Qassim told al-Jazeera satellite TV: “We will do our utmost to maintain control of ourselves and our supporters, but I share with you the concern about the other side, which has no such controls.”
The general strike was timed to come before a donor conference in Paris on January 25 that was intended to bolster Siniora’s embattled government with funds from western and Arab governments. The pledges made at the conference came to a total of $7.6 billion. Saudi Arabia topped the list of donors with a pledge of £1.1 billion, followed by the US, which chipped in with $770 million pending congressional approval: $300 million in the form of direct budget support and the rest for peacekeeping and military equipment and training. The fact that at least some of the aid comes with strings attached was highlighted by US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who said that “there are expectations about continued progress on economic reform” and that “benchmarks” – a euphemism for conditions – will accompany the financial support package.
The opposition’s campaign was initially launched to press for a government of national unity in which Hizbullah and its allies, including Christian factions led by General Michel Aoun and Sulayman Franjieh, would assume a third-plus-one of the cabinet portfolios, the constitutionally-mandated number to exercise veto power in the cabinet. This is known as the “blocking third,” as it enables the opposition to bring down the government, should it wish to: the constitution stipulates that the cabinet falls once more than a third of its ministers resign. The campaign began after months of fruitless negotiations failed to persuade the ruling March 14 coalition, a potpourri of anti-Syrian and pro-western groups and political figures, to accede to the opposition’s demands. But the government’s obduracy provoked the opposition to escalate its demands. In a televised interview on January 19, Hizbullah secretary-general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah set as a new condition early parliamentary elections.
The current political crisis was set off on November 11, when six ministers resigned from the government, protesting the lack of proper consultation in significant government initiatives. The opposition’s distrust of the Siniora cabinet fed on misgivings about the government’s weak response to the Israeli assault on Lebanon during the summer and on the fact that some of its members supported American diplomatic initiatives that had tried to use the war as an opportunity to disarm Hizbullah. After the war the government not only dragged its feet on post-war reconstruction, but also tried to use the reconstruction to pressurise Hizbullah. These governmental missteps led opposition leaders to accuse Siniora and other prominent figures in his cabinet of collaborating with the US. And when the remaining minister rushed, in a clear violation of the country’s constitution (which gives the president the authority to negotiate and ratify international treaties with the prime minister) the approval of a UN plan for an international tribunal to try the assassins of the late Rafik Hariri, the opposition’s suspicions of the government grew. There have also been concerns that the international tribunal might be misused by the US to settle scores with Hizbullah.
As the standoff between the government and the opposition continued unabated, the scenes of mayhem in the streets of Beirutgave rise to fears among many Lebanese of renewed civil war. While some flashpoints in the clashes were among co-religionists in politically-divided communities, such as the clashes between rival predominantly Christian factions in eastern Beirut and Kisirwan north of the capital, and the clashes that pitted rival predominantly Sunni factions against each other in Tripoli in the north, other clashes had distinctly sectarian overtones, especially the clashes that took place between supporters of the predominantly Shi’a Hizbullah and Amal movements on one side and the predominantly Sunni supporters of the government from the Future Movement led by Sa’ad al-Hariri, son of the late prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated on February 14, 2005.
Brinkmanship, as a political strategy based on pushing political disagreements to the brink of disaster to achieve a positive outcome, lies at the heart of the pro-government factions’ decision to use their supporters for a ferocious bout of street violence. Their aim, in this context, is to blackmail the opposition to end its campaign for a veto-wielding share of the cabinet for fear of rekindling the civil war. The opposition has vowed all along that its anti-government campaign will be peaceful and that it will never do anything that endangers civil peace and inter-communal harmony and coexistence. Hizbullah, despite being a Shi’a resistance movement, has always condemned sectarianism in Lebanese politics and the rigidities engendered by the country’s confessional political system. This attitude was summarised a few years ago in a speech by Nasrallah, in which he criticised the country’s political system, which, as he said, is based on “leaders of alleyways, of confessional groups, of districts,” and highlighted the need for “great men and great leaders.” On January 22 Nasrallah reiterated a pledge that “if they kill 1,000 of us, we will not use our weapons against them,” asking supporters to “avoid insults and sectarian slogans.”
The pro-government factions’ resort to violence seems also to be trying to provoke Hizbullah’s supporters into retaliating in kind. This would turn Hizbullah, which is dedicated solely to anti-Israeli resistance, into yet another Lebanese militia, thus giving ammunition to the US-led campaign to disarm the Islamic resistance movement. Hizbullah has so far resisted intense pressures to confiscate the arsenal of its military wing. In June 2004 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559, co-sponsored by the US and France, which called for “the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.”
The continued political impasse in Lebanon has entered its third month, mainly because of the ruling government’s insistence on “standing firm,” despite the fact that at least half the population flatly rejects its rule. An Arab League mediation, which received preliminary approval from Hizbullah, has failed to resolve the crisis after it was rejected by the ruling coalition. The proposals put on the table during a series of meetings between Amr Mousa, the League’s secretary-general, and Lebanese politicians involved the establishment of an enlarged government of national unity, consisting of 30 members. According to the proposed configuration, nineteen cabinet seats would go to the ruling March 14 alliance, whereas ten seats would go to the opposition. The remaining seat would go to a “neutral” cabinet member who would not be allowed to resign. This arrangement falls short of Hizbullah’s demand of a blocking third, and also of the government’s insistence on keeping the two-thirds majority required to pass decisions by vote. As part of the deal, the opposition would pledge to instruct its lawmakers to cast their votes for a parliamentary approval to proceed with the international tribunal.
With the failure of the Arab League initiative, hopes are now pinned on a joint Saudi-Iranian initiative. The initiative is still in the works and available details are sketchy, but it is apparently trying to breathe new life into the Arab League initiative. The recent resort to thuggery and violence by pro-government elements betrays an intent to push the current crisis beyond political arm-wrestling in order to scuttle the initiative and turn it into the last big push towards a political resolution of the ongoing crisis before the opposition caves in.