Friday, May 09, 2008

Lebanon is Heating Up Again

While I’ve been idly chatting about Locke and Rousseau with my theory students, Lebanon has decided to come surging back to life again. Hizballah seems to be ready to finally assert itself against the March 14 Forces and put an end to so-called “Cedar Revolution.” The events leading up to the explosion apparently began on Monday, May 5, when the March 14 Forces government decided to fire General Wafik Shoucair, the pro-Hizballah head of airport security and a close associate of Nabih Birri’s. Apparently the March 14 Forces believe that Shoucair has facilitated the installation of runway cameras the government believes may help Hizballah monitor that comings and goings of government ministers in and out of Beirut on their private jets. Concerns have been raised that this monitoring system could perhaps help facilitate Hizballah attacks or kidnappings.

On Tuesday, the state took further action against Hizballah. Nicholas Blanford of the The Christian Science Monitor gives us the following background:

It has been known for some time that Hezbollah has installed a private non-commercial fiber-optic land-line telephone network to provide secure communications between its leaders and the cadres. The network is extensive, stretching from Hezbollah's headquarters in the southern suburbs of Beirut to south Lebanon. Since the summer 2006 war with Israel, the system has spread further into the Bekaa Valley in the east and even into mainly Christian and Druze areas of the Mount Lebanon district, according to Marwan Hamade, the minister of telecommunications and a close ally of Mr. Jumblatt.

“It has been installed with the support of the Iranians,” he says. “It is Iran telecom, a totally parallel network to the state network.”

On Tuesday, May 6, the March 14 Forces government decided that this network was “illegal and non-constitutional” and referred its file to both the Lebanese judiciary and to the United Nations. The UN Security Council is apparently meeting today (May 8) to discuss UNSCR 1559, one of the operating clauses of which is the disarming of all militias. Clearly, the government was feeling snippy. That evening, the government also attempted to forestall a nationwide labor strike by raising the minimum wage in Lebanon from $200 to $330. This move fell short of union demands to triple the minimum wage in the face of steep price increases of up to 50 percent.

The General Labor Confederation strike proceeded on Wednesday, May 7, and Hizballah and Amal both joined the strike. The strike gave way to rock throwing and, from there, descended into armed violence. Lucy Fielder of the Irish Times gives this description of the scene:

A pall of black, acrid smoke from the tyres hovered above a city of barricades, soldiers, shuttered shops and deserted roads. Burning cars blocked a roundabout in the mainly Shia southern suburbs.

In the flashpoint areas of Ras el-Nabeh, Noueiry and Corniche el-Mazraa, which are a mix of Sunni and Shia Muslims and therefore of supporters of parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri and the opposition's Hizbullah and Amal respectively, gangs of youths exchanged fire and occasional grenades, and threw stones at each other. Sporadic shooting continued as night fell. The security source said between 12 and 15 people were injured, but none were thought to be grave.

Mark MacKinnon and Spencer Osberg of the Canada Globe and Mail [I pulled this from Lexis Nexus, but I couldn’t find an on-line link, sorry] further describe the conflict:

Explosions blasted across Beirut and pro- and anti-government forces exchanged gunfire as Lebanon's deep political crisis turned violent yesterday, sparking renewed fears of a return to civil war.

At least eight people were reported injured during the day-long fighting, which followed several days of smaller clashes, and by nightfall Beirut was tense and deeply divided along political and sectarian lines. The road connecting the capital to the country's only international airport was blocked by supporters of the opposition Hezbollah movement, which built dirt barriers and set tires on fire before erecting tents on the road in apparent anticipation of a prolonged stay.

Hezbollah officials said they would continue their campaign of civil disobedience today, until the government rescinded several recent "anti-Hezbollah decisions."

Among those trapped at the airport, according to MacKinnon and Osberg, is Fairuz, Lebanon’s musical superstar. Her views on the emerging conflict have not been circulated, so far.

The Daily Star summarizes the Army’s position fairly succinctly.

BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army Command warned on Thursday that the ongoing violence threatened the unity of the military.

An Army Command statement called on all parties to practice self-restraint, adding that the lack of national responsibility is limiting the army's role and ability to restore peace. The army statement said that moving away from dialogue and resorting to violence was a clear departure from the principle of national coexistence.

"Everybody will lose if the current status quo persists since security in Lebanon is only achieved through consensus and not through arms," the statement said.

The Army Command urged all parties to seek solutions for the ongoing crisis, adding that the army was ready to help find solutions while trying its best to protect people and their property despite major obstacles.

Neither the Siniora government nor Hizballah appear to be interested in backing down. If we are to believe Los Angeles Times interview with Israeli intelligence, Hizballah has beefed up its weapons stores considerably since last year. Now we will see whether the government parties have created their own militias, as rumors suggest, and is they are well-equipped and well-trained enough to handle Hizballah. If not, I can’t see what else they could do besides fold. If I were Hizballah, after forcing the government to back down on this, I would push for that veto. It’s the perfect tool for flushing the Cedar Revolution down the toilet of history.

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