Let me begin with a disclaimer. What you are about to read is my understanding of the historical and current political situation in Lebanon. I have tried to get facts straight to provide an objective understanding of what is going on and how Lebanon came to its current political situation. In no way am I an expert and there are certainly layers and nuances to the situation here that I do not begin to understand. However, I hope it provides those of you back in the states a slightly better understanding of the situation in Lebanon.
I will start with the assassination of Rafik Hariri on Febuary 14, 2005. Hariri had twice been Prime Minister of Lebanon, having most recently resigned his post in 2001. He is credited with the rebuilding of Beirut after the fifteen year civil war ended in 1990. His motorcade was hit with a massive car bomb as it passed by the Saint George Hotel, about a mile from our apartment in Beirut. Hariri and 21 others were killed in the explosion. Immediately following the assassination people took to the streets in protest. These initial demonstrations were aimed at Syria, which had troops in Lebanon at the time and was exerting significant influence on politics in the country. This was the beginning of what became known as The Cedar Revolution, the goal of which was to drive Syria out of Lebanon. Hariri had worked to push Syria out of Lebanon, and it was widely believed that Syria was behind the assassination. In response to this effort, on March 8, 2005 thousands of pro-Syrian demonstrators converged on Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut. Not to be outdone, the anti-Syrian forces held their own, reportedly much larger demonstration on Martyr’s Square on March 14. As you read about politics in Lebanon there will be frequent references to the March 8 or March 14 forces. This is where these references come from. March 8 forces are pro-Syrian and pro-Hezbollah. March 14 forces are their opponents. Generally speaking, March 8 forces are Shia Muslims while March 14 forces are Sunni. The growing conflict in Lebanon is really between these two Muslim sects. Ultimately, Syria was forced out of the country.
In response to Hariri’s assassination the UN set up an International Tribunal to investigate and ultimately determine who was responsible for the assassination. Since the late summer of this year reports of the Tribunal’s findings have been circulating. While early reports indicated that Syria was responsible, all reports now say that Hezbollah officials or operatives will be indicted. This is the source of all the current tension in Lebanon.
Hezbollah. Known in the US as a terrorist organization. This organization began in the late stages of the civil war (1975-1990) with a goal of driving Israel out of the country. Since then it has grown into a strong force for social and economic support, at least for Shia populations in Lebanon. It has a strong, well trained militia which many people believe is much stronger than the Lebanese army. Over time Hezbollah changed its aim, and in addition to providing social services it also developed a political arm. In the past parliamentary elections several Hezbollah party officials were elected to the Cabinet. (I’m not sure elections is the right term as even some Lebanese we talked with can’t describe how ministers get “elected”) As the country waits for the International Tribunal to make its findings public, Hezbollah has been very vocal in its opposition to the Tribunal and the potential for its people to be indicted. In an attempt to force the hand of the current Prime Minister (Rafik Hariri’s son) to disavow the Tribunal, ten Hezbollah aligned Cabinet members recently resigned, thus bringing down the government.
You likely read about this. The most recent unrest was an attempt by both sides to influence the President of the country who was responsible for naming a new Prime Minister. This of course depended upon how the ministers aligned themselves; with the March 8 forces or the March 14 forces. When Walid Jumblatt, a long time influential minister threw his support behind the March 8 forces, it pretty much sealed the deal and guaranteed that the March 8 forces would get to name the next Prime Minister. Najib Mikati has been named the next Prime Minister. He is Sunni (required by law), but is considered to be aligned with the March 8 forces. (The constitution requires certain positions be held by members of certain religions. The more than a dozen religious sects in Lebanon must be represented in the government….somehow.)
The one certainty in Lebanese politics is that it is complicated. The country remains tense but calm at this point in time. There is no doubt that when the Tribunal releases its findings there could be more turmoil. All sides are calling for calm. Only time will tell if the people listen.