December 9, 2006
Democrats Hanging Tough in LebanonBy Rick Moran
Despite being under enormous pressure, the March 14th Forces and Prime Minister Siniora are continuing to resist calls for their resignations and the formation of a Hezb'allah dominated "National Unity Government. Clashes in the streets between Shias and Sunnis have already cost the life of one young protester while the anti-government forces continue to surround the Grand Serail, in effect besieging the government.
Last Friday, it appears that Hezb'allah's plans for storming the government building where Prime Minister Siniora and his cabinet have taken up residence since the assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel were foiled only by the personal intervention of Saudi King Abdullah and the Lebanese Army who appealed to Speaker Nabih Berri to intercede with Hassan Nasrallah, Hezb'allah's leader. The group had placed roadblocks all around the Grand Serail and refused to allow any access to the building. Hezb'allah protesters also shut down the vital road to the airport. Following the King's intercession, some of the roadblocks were lifted but Hezb'allah has made it clear that they can be re-established at any time.
During the week, the crowds of anti-government protesters dwindled to just a few thousand but opposition leaders kept up their barrage of insults and charges directed against Siniora and his government. On Thursday, Nasrallah addressed the nation via the Hezb'allah propaganda arm al-Manar and with the crowd in front of the Grand Serail cheering his image projected onto gigantic TV screens, the Shia leader escalated his anti-government rhetoric, accusing the Siniora government of working with the United States to urge Israel to attack Hezb'allah last summer as well as interdicting arms meant to re-supply his militia in the south:
The Hezb'allah leader also rejected the idea that he was carrying out a coup while vowing not to leave the streets until Siniora's government gives way to a unity government. He has called for an even more massive demonstration on Sunday, also promising to keep the protests peaceful, saying "We will win with our voices, and not with our arms!"
But interspersed throughout his bombastic address, Nasrallah made it plain that there was going to be a change at the top - one way or another. Addressing the March 14th majority in the cabinet, Nasrallah warned, "But soon, we will not listen anymore and will not want a government headed by any one of you," a clear threat of a coup given that Parliament is the only body that could remove the Prime Minister and his government.
For their part, the March 14th Forces have begun escalating their rhetoric as well. In a nationally televised address on Friday, Prime Minister Siniora dropped his normally smiling and low-key manner and lashed out at the Hezb'allah leader. He accused Nasrallah of trying to engineer a coup (the first time that the Prime Minister had done so personally) and ridiculed Nasrallah's rhetoric:
Siniora also left the door open for negotiations. In fact, the Prime Minister has been pleading with the opposition to come back to the table for talks since the Shia ministers left the cabinet almost two months ago. Nasrallah is having none of it. At the moment, he feels he has the upper hand. And with the prospect of another huge crowd in the streets on Sunday, anything would be possible.
There were two major efforts to resolve the crisis this past week. The first involved a former member of Parliament and Sunni scholar Fathi Yakan, representing the party of former pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami, who proposed a cabinet made up of 19 members of March 14th, 9 members from the opposition bloc, and 2 "independent" members thus denying a supermajority to March 14th but also veto power to the opposition. Siniora rejected the proposal, feeling quite rightly that any compromise that did not recognize the fact that March 14 won a majority in the election last year would undercut the democratic nature of his government. Not that it mattered. Nasrallah rejected the compromise out of hand.
The second effort is ongoing and shows some promise. The council of Maronite Bishops has called for early Presidential elections, ratification of the International Tribunal, and an "entente" government. Nasrallah professes to be interested and the Prime Minister has not rejected the plan either. The prospect of an early Presidential election would definitely appeal to Nasrallah's junior partner in the opposition, Michel Aoun, whose Presidential ambitions have become something of a running gag in Lebanon.
Despite this glimmer of hope, the crisis remains. And Nasrallah, who went into the streets two weeks ago, confident that his masses of devotees could bring a quick end to the Siniora government, may, as Michael Young points out, have overplayed his hand:
Young, Opinion Editor of The Daily Star hits upon one of the major divides in Lebanese society; the Shias are very poor and have never shared in the economic life of the country.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the feelings of inferiority and resentment that have built up over the years in the Shia community. Nasrallah has skillfully played upon these feelings, making Hezb'allah not just resistance fighters against Israel but also champions of the Shia underclass. With Iran's help, Nasrallah has established a separate and distinct social structure for southern Lebanese Shias outside of the government, with health clinics, food banks, schools, and other outward manifestations of government.
It has bred fanatical loyalty and devotion among the Shias toward his militia. As the Shia see it, Nasrallah is not carrying out a coup against the government as much as he's standing up for the Shia, getting them proper representation in the councils of government. In this respect, most Shias do not see what is happening in front of the Grand Serail as pro-Syrian or pro-Iranian. They feel themselves as much a nationalist party as March 14th and their protests as legitimate as those that helped drive the Syrian army out of Lebanon last spring.
And Michael Young, who likens Hezb'allah's efforts to those of the Soviet's successful coup of the Czechoslovakian government in 1948, shows why this dream of Shia dominance of Lebanon will not be realized:
"A war nobody wants" but that may become inevitable unless Nasrallah can climb back from the very long limb he finds himself on at the moment. He has promised to stay in the streets until he gets a unity government acceptable to him. Anything less and his stock goes down with the Shias who have poured into the streets, answering his call for peaceful revolution. In effect, if Nasrallah gives up, he will lose credibility - not just with the Lebanese Shia but with his patrons in Tehran and Damascus as well as the "Arab street" who he claims is with him.
If that happens, he may be a very long time recovering his lost aura of invincibility.
Rick Moran is the Proprietor of Rightwing Nuthouse and a frequent contributor to American Thinker.