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Lebanon assassination triggers crisis

The assassination of former prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri, sparked the largest demonstrations in the Middle East since the 1978/9 Iranian revolution. While 8 March saw up to a million protesting against US, Israeli and French interference, six days later a possibly bigger protest demanded the withdrawal of Syrian troops. It also gave George Bush the chance to push more of the US neo-conservative agenda in the region. ROBERT BECHERT reports.

HARIRI’S ASSASSINATION PROVOKED an immediate response from many Lebanese people. Over 200,000 of Lebanon’s 3.7 million population attended his funeral, a crowd representing many classes and religious groupings within the country. An important reason for this massive reaction was fear that the killing could re-ignite the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, with around 150,000 people killed. The protests also reflected widespread opposition to continued domination by the Syrian regime that had, for example, insisted last year on a three-year extension to Lebanese president Emile Lahoud’s term of office. There was also the fear that the assassination would stop the country’s reconstruction and limit the tourism that has been a very important economic factor.

Hariri’s funeral, and especially the protests afterwards, reflected historic divisions within Lebanon. These later, ‘opposition’ protests were mainly middle-class and were far smaller than the 16 February funeral. A former US diplomat spoke of 25,000 protesting on 28 February, the day the government resigned. At first many international media reports did not comment on the social and religious make-up of these protesters, a vitally important question in a country so deeply religiously divided as Lebanon. The Shia Muslim population, generally poor and which make up about 40% of the total, was hardly involved in the protests that led to the government’s resignation.

A BBC reporter wrote: "Some people here are jokingly calling the phenomenon ‘the Gucci revolution’ – not because they are dismissive of the demonstrations, but because so many of those waving the Lebanese flag on the street are really very unlikely protesters… And in one unforgettable scene an elderly lady, her hair all done up, was demonstrating alongside her Sri Lankan domestic helper, telling her to wave the flag and teaching her the Arabic words of the slogans". In sharp contrast, the Hezbollah-led demonstration was overwhelmingly made up of the working class and poor.

Under increasing international pressure, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, announced a redeployment of troops to the Bekaa Valley, prior to their total withdrawal. This move was in line with the 1989 Ta’if accord that was signed towards the end of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war. This implementation was years overdue and there was no timescale given to fully implement last September’s US/France-sponsored UN resolution 1559, which demanded the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops (ie Syrian) from Lebanon, and disarming Hezbollah.

Deep divides

A POLARISATION IS taking place. While up to 100,000 people demonstrated in Beirut on 7 March against Syrian-supported Lahoud, the next day at least 500,000, possibly up to a million – a quarter of the entire population – attended a mainly Hezbollah-organised demonstration. The enormous 8 March protest was called to ‘thank Syria’, reject ‘foreign interference’ and US-led demands that Hezbollah dissolve its armed wing. This mass protest clearly had an anti-imperialist character, with slogans like ‘America get out!’ and ‘Death to America!’ crying out from the crowds.

It showed the depth of opposition to US imperialism and paved the way for the former prime minister, Omar Karami, who resigned on 28 February, to return and start to form a new government on 10 March. With the defeat of this initial US offensive the Syrian regime confirmed that a timetable for the withdrawal of all its troops would be agreed in April. Clearly, Damascus aims to defend its interests in Lebanon by indirect means if it has to fully withdraw its army.

On 13 March around 300,000 attended a Hezbollah-led protest in the southern city of Nabatiyeh. The next day the opposition organised a protest in Beirut that was widely reported, even by Al Jazeera, as probably the ‘biggest yet’. The opposition leaders hoped to exploit their supporters’ anger with the aim of drawing closer to Washington and strengthening their own position at home.

Both these huge demonstrations reflected Lebanon’s religious and social divisions. While the 8 March protest was mainly Shia Muslim in composition, the 14 March opposition rally was mainly Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim. One result of this is that there is the danger of open sectarian conflict developing again unless the Lebanese labour movement gives an independent lead.

The tragedy is that less than a year since a general strike brought the Lebanese masses together in common struggle, today the workers’ movement is hardly to be seen. Instead of drawing together working people on the basis of what is positive in both movements – opposition to foreign domination by either imperialism or the Syrian regime, and proposing a concrete struggle to solve the issues facing the Lebanese masses – the workers’ leaders are virtually silent, leaving the way clear for imperialism and different brands of capitalist politicians to exploit the masses once again.

The Syrian regime’s domination is a key reason for the demands from many Lebanese for all its troops to leave. With the prospect of support from the US and European Union (EU), mainly middle class Lebanese hope of returning to the country’s previous Western-backed position, the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’, trying to isolate itself from developments in the rest of the Arab world. On the other hand, the support for Hezbollah’s radical strand of political Islam amongst many Shias has meant that they are prepared to tolerate the ‘lesser evil’ of Syrian troops as a counter-weight to the threat of new Israeli interventions.

Hariri’s record

THE SYRIAN REGIME was widely blamed, both in Lebanon and internationally, but we cannot be certain who killed Hariri. There is the possibility that he was killed at the behest of the Syrian regime or by elements within it, fearful that their own interests in Lebanon were under threat. Certainly, Hariri appeared to be moving away from his previous close relationship with the Damascus regime, supporting UN resolution 1559. Hariri, who resigned as prime minister last October, was planning a comeback as head of a united opposition in the parliamentary elections scheduled for May.

But as a hugely wealthy businessman, worth over $3.8 billion in 2003 with large business interests in several Middle Eastern countries, Hariri could have faced threats from business or political rivals. After looking at who has immediately gained from his killing, there also has to be the suspicion that he was killed by elements, for example, within the Israeli government or Lebanese opposition, that wanted to galvanise hostility to the Syrian regime in Lebanon and internationally, thereby providing the US and other imperialist powers with an excuse to intervene.

Hariri was prime minister for ten of the 15 years since the civil war ended. He sponsored a massive rebuilding programme, but this had slowed down. However, as this reconstruction was financed largely by loans, Lebanon now has a $35 billion state debt, over 185% of GDP, and a catastrophic financial position. While real GDP grew rapidly in the early 1990s, it slowed down and then went into decline in 1999 and 2000. Since then the economy has grown, but at a much slower rate than before. This is the background to IMF demands for massive spending cuts, privatisation, and holding down living standards, in a situation where unemployment is around 20% and about 30% live below the official poverty line.

Hariri’s terms in office were marked by regular workers’ protests against government policies. The main trade union federation, CGT (General Confederation of Labour), called one general strike practically every year Hariri was prime minister. Unfortunately, while well supported, these were mostly token actions, not part of a serious campaign to achieve the workers’ demands, including higher pay and an end to privatisation.

A general strike in October 2003 stopped Lebanon as workers demanded an end to the effective freeze on the minimum wage in place since 1996, opposed higher taxes and job cuts, and called for increased social spending. A central Beirut demonstration of mainly young workers chanted, ‘stop the waste and the plundering, give bread to the poor’.

Then, in May 2004, after spontaneous protests the previous month, the army shot dead five workers as they took part in a one-day CGT general strike, in the very poor Shia Muslim suburb of Beirut, Hay-al-Sellom. This brutal repression led to widespread protests. But, as before, the CGT leadership gave no direction and, fearful of what more protests would mean, called off a further general strike scheduled for the end of June.

As has been seen in many other countries, when the working-class movement does not act as a unifying force that can offer an alternative, working people can be divided and other forces set the pace. There is a serious threat of renewed sectarian tensions between Lebanese and also against Syrians. Around half-a-million Syrians work in Lebanon and there is some hostility towards them as they are often used as cheap, illegal labour. Again, the labour movement could have acted against the bosses’ divide-and-rule policy, but it did not and, in the bitter atmosphere after Hariri’s assassination, Syrian workers were attacked and many fled the country.

Bush’s plans

THE US TOOK the opportunity to attempt to re-establish its dominance over Lebanon, weaken opposition to the deal the White House is trying to broker between the Israeli government and the new Palestinian leadership, and possibly take steps to remove the current Syrian regime. Immediately after Hariri’s killing, Washington sought to utilise the anger for its own agenda. US officials spoke about the Lebanese opposition protests as ‘people power’ and the ‘cedar revolution’, implying that a majority of Lebanese fully supported US policy, something that could not be said even in regard to the opposition’s supporters.

But the huge Hezbollah-led 8 March protest, far larger than anything the US-backed ‘opposition’ had organised up to then, showed that Lebanon has a more complex reality and that there are mighty obstacles to Bush’s plans. It has forced Bush to back down from his previous policy of simply denouncing Hezbollah as a ‘terrorist organisation’. On 15 March, Bush offered its leadership the ‘chance’ to "prove they’re not by laying down arms and not threatening peace".

Bush presents himself as fighting for ‘democracy’ throughout the Middle East. In a major speech on 8 March, he cited the Iraqi elections, the very limited municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, and the decision to allow more than one candidate to stand in direct presidential elections in Egypt, as evidence that a "critical mass of events" is changing the region – authoritarian rule is the "last gasp of a discredited past". To these fine words Bush added a list of demands, including freedom of assembly, the right to form political parties, and the full participation of women, although significantly, not the release of political prisoners or an end to censorship.

The Bush administration is faced with the ironic situation that its invasion of Iraq, far from stabilising the Middle East, has destabilised the entire region. The popular anger from below now threatens a number of the US’s client Arab regimes. This is the reason why Bush is now advocating a policy of limited ‘reform’ from the top in the hope of preventing revolution from below. As Bush explained on 8 March, "a dictatorship controls the political life of a country, responsible opposition cannot develop, and dissent is driven underground and toward the extreme".

In a matter of weeks, Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt has gone from violently suppressing what it called ‘futile’ demands for democratic rights to announcing a limited opening up of the next presidential election. However, at the end of the day, Bush and co will work to ensure that US imperialism either directly, or behind the scenes, maintains its interests in the region.

Since Hariri’s assassination, the US government has stepped up its demands for the implementation of UN resolution 1559 and the withdrawal of Syrian forces. The US State Department effectively dismissed Assad’s first redeployment statement: "When the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal – no half-hearted measures".

The US government, however, has not told the whole truth about its dealings with Damascus. While criticising Syria Bush did not, of course, refer to the well-documented case of recent close co-operation between the US and Syrian intelligence services with regard to the Syrian-born Canadian citizen, Maher Arar. Arar was arrested in September 2002 at New York’s JFK airport, flown by the CIA in one of its ‘extraordinary rendition’ operations to Jordan, and then handed over to the Syrian regime, which imprisoned and tortured him for ten months.

As is to be expected, the US government is hypocritical both about Syria and the UN. Like all member countries, the US government picks and chooses which UN resolutions it acts upon and which it ignores. Today, the Bush administration, while loudly supporting resolution 1559, does not even mention UN resolution 242 (1967), which demanded the withdrawal of Israeli forces from areas occupied in the six-day war. Likewise with resolution 446 (1979), which declared Israeli settlements in the occupied areas illegal. In today’s anti-Syrian campaign nothing is heard from Washington about resolution 497 (1981), which declared legally ‘null and void’ Israel’s annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights, territory also occupied in 1967.

Generally, over the past decades, there have been cool relations between Syria and the US. During the ‘cold war’, the Syrian regime aligned itself with the then Soviet Union against its US-backed neighbours, Israel and Turkey (plus, in the 1980s, Iraq). While in the mid-1960s some radical anti-capitalist measures were taken, the Syrian regime was an authoritarian dictatorship that was prepared to brutally suppress opposition, as it did in 1982 when it crushed the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama. Despite its past, periodic co-operation with the US, the neo-cons surrounding Bush see the Syrian regime as an unreliable factor. In response to the threats from Washington, the Syrian regime has increasingly attempted to curry favour with some Western governments, like the British and French, while retaining its position in Lebanon and seeking to win the return of the Golan Heights.

The Israeli government for a long time supported Syrian troops remaining in Lebanon. An Israeli official acknowledged that there is "some apprehension about Syria leaving Lebanon, but it’s a calculated risk one has to take to weaken Hezbollah". However, there was not complete agreement on this. Last December the Israeli national security council warned about the destabilising effect of a Syrian exit from Lebanon, which could give Hezbollah "greater freedom of operation to escalate the conflict on Israel’s northern border". (New York Times, 11 March)

The Syrian regime is now under increased outside pressure and fears for its own future should an opposition movement begin to develop inside the country. That is why, at the end of February, it made a gesture towards Washington by handing over Saddam Hussein’s half-brother to US forces in Iraq. But the US and Israeli governments see Syria, and especially Hezbollah, as a threat to their attempt to reach a deal with the new moderate Palestinian leadership that falls well short of a viable Palestinian state

The Hezbollah factor

THE ISRAELI AND US governments fear Hezbollah because, as a symbol of resistance to Israeli expansionism, it can inspire opposition to any Israeli-PLO deal that leaves Palestinians with only a semi-colonial, Bantustan-style entity, instead of their own state. Hezbollah can do this because it is the only Arab force that can say it has defeated the Israeli military.

After its first invasion in 1978, Israeli forces again invaded in 1982, laying siege to Beirut before pulling back to southern Lebanon in 1985. Hezbollah fighters attacked both the Israelis and their Christian proxy force, the South Lebanon Army, undermining the occupation. Then in May 2000, Hezbollah was able to force an earlier than expected withdrawal of Israeli forces. On the basis of this record of resistance, and the social and education work it did amongst poor Shias, Hezbollah has been able to build a powerful base.

It is because Hezbollah stands out as a symbol of resistance that, in UN resolution 1559, the US linked the question of the disarmament of its 20,000-strong militia to the withdrawal of Syrian troops. For some time, European imperialist powers blocked these attempts to get the UN and EU to declare Hezbollah a ‘terrorist organisation’ as they did do not want to rule out deals with its leaders. They argued for a policy of engagement with Hezbollah’s pro-capitalist leadership, attempting to incorporate it in the same way that is now being done with Mahmoud Abbas and the new PLO leaders and what the British government is trying to do with Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland.

After the mighty demonstration of Hezbollah’s mass support, the Bush administration has indicated a willingness to come to a deal with Hezbollah leaders. Imperialism is starting to carry out a ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach, making threats as well as offers. While Bush was making some conciliatory noises, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was calling on the EU to list Hezbollah as a ‘terrorist organisation’ and not distinguish between its military and political wings.

The Lebanese government’s resignation in February was hailed in the West as a victory for the ‘people’ and a step towards ‘democracy’. But the demonstration on 8 March showed the reality of the situation: significant mass opposition to US policy in a deeply divided country.

Immediately after the Lebanese government’s resignation and the Syrian forces’ pull back, many commentators asked whether this marked another victory for the neo-cons and their plans for the Middle East. As we have seen, Bush and co have tried to seize the initiative. But even before 8 March the historian and commentator, Timothy Gorton Ash, wrote: "There’s a problem if the brand name for Lebanese people power – cedar revolution – seems to come from a senior American official, who in the next breath talks about ‘freedom from foreign influence’." (Guardian, London, 2 March 2005)

The presentation of the Bush government as fighters for ‘democracy’ is really a cynical cover for its policies, in the same way that it lied about Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and Saddam’s ‘links’ with 9/11. But this is not to say that, in some countries, illusions in these democratic promises will not exist, if only for a short time. It is possible that in other Middle Eastern countries the protests in Lebanon, and even the holding of elections in Iraq, will encourage further popular attempts to win greater democratic rights. But the masses will be in for a bitter disappointment if they put their trust in the promises of Bush and co.

Capitalism and democracy

THE WHITE HOUSE claims that it is right-wing parties like the US Republicans that are instrumental in winning ‘democracy’ and that capitalism and democracy go together. The reality is somewhat different. In country after country, the most basic democratic rights have not been granted ‘from above’ but secured only after mass struggle, usually led by the workers’ movement. There is no automatic link between capitalism and democratic rights. It has only been in the last 100 years that mass action, or the threat of action, has won equal voting rights for workers and women in most of the developed capitalist countries, let alone the rest of the world.

Socialists have always battled for democratic rights under capitalism, to enable the working class and poor to organise and struggle. These rights are also essential elements of the workers’ democratic control and management necessary to create a socialist society, alongside the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy.

Capitalists have a different view of democratic rights, which is why historically they were not in the forefront of demanding fully democratic voting systems. For them, the current form of parliamentary democracy is the most efficient system of rule: it provides safety valves for the expression of discontent; it can be used to prevent individual capitalists damaging the interests of the system as a whole; and, most importantly, it does not (except in periods of mass radicalisation) threaten their ownership of a country’s wealth, the basis of their system.

However, history has shown many times that when mass movements threaten capitalism the ruling class has always been prepared to use repression, ranging from widespread arrests to fascism and civil war, to defend its rule. When its own interests and/or capitalism are threatened, imperialism joins in, or sponsors, reaction, such as when the British and US governments restored the Shah of Iran to power in 1953. The willingness of imperialism and capitalism to use brutal methods, if necessary, to suppress opposition to its rule is a central feature of its character. John Negroponte, the outgoing US ambassador in Iraq and incoming ‘security tsar’, was involved in the 1980s in aiding the extreme right-wing ‘Contra’ fighters in Nicaragua and the creation of military death squads in Honduras.

A warning from this history of repression is that, given the social and economic conditions in the Middle East, in addition to imperialism’s interest in its oil, it is unlikely that any democratic order based upon capitalism would be stable or long lasting. Nevertheless, repression can never permanently suppress movements, and the ruling class can only seek to maintain its rule by incorporating or neutralising the leaders of popular parties or movements. Today in Iraq, the US is currently doing this with many Shia and Kurdish leaders and hopes to do the same with Sunni leaders.

At the same time, this shift in policy is allowing Bush to dress up in democratic colours, to speak of a ‘new era’ in the Middle East. In some countries it is continuing a tactic – developed during the collapse of the former Soviet Union and Eastern European states – of exploiting the masses’ demands for democratic rights and their hostility to the old elite, to bring to power pro-imperialist regimes.

Potential for socialist ideas

IMPERIALISM IS ONLY able to carry out this type of policy because of the current absence of a strong socialist workers’ movement that can offer a real alternative. Yet recent events in Lebanon show how quickly imperialist plans can unravel once the working masses move into action.

The size of the anti-US demonstration in Beirut was a big blow to Bush’s plans and showed the depth of anti-imperialist feelings in much of the Middle East. A workers’ movement could channel this mood in a socialist direction. But in its absence the leadership of the anti-imperialist protests is in the hands of pro-capitalist, religious leaders, as well as being exploited by the Syrian regime, and cannot appeal to those genuinely demanding Lebanon’s freedom from foreign domination.

Hezbollah leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, called for a ‘government of national unity’, a call that could gain support as a reaction to the threat of sectarian division and imperialist intervention, but one that does not answer the problems working people face. The return of Karami as prime minister may be viewed by some as a defeat for the US and Israel, but he is no friend of the working masses. In May 1992, Karami was forced to resign as prime minister on the first day of a four-day general strike called against his economic policies.

The tragedy in Lebanon is that the working class, despite its long history of struggle, is not setting the pace at the present time. Different religious factions and leaders dominate. The parliamentary elections scheduled for May will make no difference as they will be dominated by the pro-capitalist, sectarian parties of all religions. This weakens resistance to the capitalists and their system, as well as posing the possibility of sectarian conflict. What is required is a genuine workers’ party embracing workers from all religious backgrounds and fighting for a socialist alternative. Such a programme could be built upon the lessons of Lebanese workers’ recent struggles, combining support for democratic rights and opposition to sectarian division with the socialist policies necessary for genuine reconstruction and development. This could win widespread support. Opposing imperialist interventions and the continued presence of Syrian troops it would have to mean the right for the people of Lebanon to decide their own future, free of outside control. Such a united, workers’ movement could cut across religious divisions and offer protection to minorities fearful of sectarian attack.

The workers’ alternative to a ‘government of national unity’ should be a workers’ and poor peasants’ government to carry out socialist and not capitalist policies. Such a government could appeal to the working masses in Syria to follow a similar road, and also set an example to Palestinian and Israeli workers and youth. It would show concretely that there is a socialist alternative to the chaos and poverty that repeatedly grips the entire region. And it would lay the basis for a genuinely democratic, voluntary, and equal socialist federation of the Middle East.


A brief history of Lebanon

FRENCH IMPERIALISM created Lebanon in 1920 after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. It has an overwhelmingly Arab population divided into different Christian and Muslim denominations. The French included in Lebanon Muslim areas that had previously looked towards Damascus and wanted to join the newly formed Syria.

Following mass protests, Lebanon won independence from France at the end of 1943. On the basis of the 1932 census, which showed that Christians were 54% of the population, it was agreed in the ‘national covenant’ of 1943 that seats in parliament would be distributed on a ratio of six Christians to five Muslims. The president would be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the parliament’s speaker a Shia Muslim, while a Druze, officially regarded as a Muslim denomination, usually had the defence minister’s position. While the 1989 Ta’if accord equalised the Christian-Muslim ratio, it left intact an electoral system that divides voters, candidates and parliamentary seats on a religious basis.

Although Lebanon was, in comparison with its Arab and Turkish neighbours, relatively prosperous for a period after the second world war, the country faced regular upheavals. In 1958, US marines intervened to aid the then pro-US president.

Over decades, shifts in the population balance, including the influx of mainly Sunni Muslim Palestinian refugees, undermined the 1943 ratio. While no census has been taken since 1932, the CIA in 1986 estimated that the religious balance was 41% Shia, 27% Sunni, 16% Maronite (Christian), 7% Druze (a branch of Shia Islam), 5% Greek Orthodox and 3% Greek Catholics. In addition, there are currently about 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, about 10% of the total population.

The relative decline of the Christian population has weakened this community’s leaders. Before and especially during the 15-year civil war that tore Lebanon apart, Christian leaders increasingly relied on support from outside powers, including Israel, the US, and sometimes Syria. This also extended to different Christian leaders using these external forces in conflicts with their Christian rivals. In 1976, Syrian forces intervened – backed by most Arab governments, the US and Israel – and prevented the defeat of the Christian forces at that time. The Israeli government, then led by Yitzhak Rabin, actually wanted the Syrian forces to come down to Lebanon’s southern border with Israel but the Damascus regime did not agree.

In 1982, Israeli troops invaded Lebanon for a second time and then, three months later, US, French and Italian troops arrived as ‘peacekeepers’. These ‘peacekeepers’ withdrew in early 1984, after the US and French suffered heavy casualties in two huge bombings in October 1983.

This left two foreign armies in Lebanon, the Israeli and the Syrian. By 1985, Israeli forces had pulled back to the ‘security zone’ they had established in southern Lebanon. However, this did not mean that imperialism, at that time, demanded the withdrawal of the Syrian forces; the Syrians were actually regarded as a stabilising force. In 1990, George W Bush’s father, president Bush I, supported the Syrian military action that forced the Christian leader, General Michel Aoun, into exile and, thereby, effectively ended the civil war.

After 1990, the Syrian regime had its own reasons for remaining in Lebanon, including defence strategy, finance and retaining a bargaining chip in relation to its attempts to regain the Golan Heights. This was why the Syrian regime ignored parts of the Ta’if accord.


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