As I was writing this article, the suffering of the Lebanese military personnel taken hostage by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Nusra Front took a dramatic turn. The hostages’ families suspended their street protest upon hearing the news that a woman and child alleged to be the wife and daughter of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, ISIS’s leader, had been arrested on Lebanese soil. Since then, some reports have been published which say the woman detained in Beirut is linked to a leader of Al-Nusra, and not ISIS.
According to Lebanese security sources, who are now the sole official source for both news and leaks in the total absence of truly reliable media reports, the woman and the child with her were arrested by the Lebanese army’s intelligence service. Without casting too much doubt or delving too much into endless details—details that no-one can confirm as true, or how and when they are being leaked—the most significant detail is surely that the woman and her daughter (or, as some reports say, her son) were arrested 10 days ago. Yes, 10 days ago!
A surprise such as this highlights several issues, the most important of which is that the normal political life the Lebanese like to tell themselves they enjoy is gone. With its disappearance, the people of Lebanon are back where they were before, i.e., back to being mere insignificant spectators of a “Game of Nations” being played out by domestic, Arab, regional, and international intelligence agencies in their country. As of today, it is not only the families of the military hostages who are autumn leaves blown by the winds of malevolent political projects, swirling about the corpse of the Lebanese state; it is all the Lebanese and the peoples of the Levant.
It is no exaggeration to say that Lebanon and other entities in the region have entered a post-independence era, one which follows that which began with the League of Nations mandates of 1920 and the creation of Israel in 1948. Thus these entities are currently facing an existential challenge made more difficult by conflicting sectarian and nationalistic projects, the renaissance of imperialist dreams of non-Arab powers and their penetration of and expansion within the region, and the fear felt by minorities who are now implicitly—or even openly—seeking foreign protection.
Facing a climate such as this, grand political slogans sound like unrealistic dreams, the issue of sovereignty a bad joke, and the idea of a historic leader or “strong president” (as Michel Aoun claims he would be) a silly, quixotic boast.
A few days ago, Gebran Bassil, Lebanon’s foreign minister and Aoun’s son-in-law, made a speech before the 15th Francophone Summit in Senegal, in which he said that “Lebanon is today in the eye of the storm,” and that “both regional instability and the Syrian conflict are reflected in our country, which is now encountering existential challenges that are the most dangerous in its modern history.”
He went on to add: “On the internal political stability front, Lebanon’s political life is finding it difficult to function normally. It is essential that a president is elected without foreign intervention, and vote through a new more democratic and fairer electoral system.”
He also raised the issue of the impact of the mass exodus of Syrian refugees, pointing out that they, along with the Palestinian refugees already in Lebanon, now number more than 2 million, compared to Lebanon’s pre-war population of 4 million. This unhappy situation is a costly one, and Lebanon—as Bassil put it—is forced, given its unique generosity, to balance humanitarian concerns with its unquestionable duty to protect itself.
Bassil also addressed the issue of terrorism, saying that Lebanon found itself in the cross-hairs “of terrorist groups like ISIS, whose aim is to spread fear and extremism and extend its influence to our land.” These groups, Bassil added, “carry a thought alien to our tolerant culture, and our pluralist political system; and we have responded by deploying the army which since then has been fighting them until they are eradicated.”
These are strong words indeed. However, they would have been more meaningful had the speaker been someone other than Bassil. The “Aounist” minister said only one part of a larger truth, a part that suits him and his party.
To begin with, on the issue of “internal political stability,” Mr. Bassil is right in saying that Lebanon’s political life is not functioning normally. But the reason for this is that state institutions, and indeed even the whole state, is now subservient to Hezbollah, which is theocratic–sectarian, militaristic, and whose loyalty and ultimate leadership lie outside Lebanon, and Hezbollah is Mr. Bassil’s party’s main ally. It is now almost impossible to see where the role of Hezbollah ends and the Lebanese government’s begins, bearing in mind that the former claims it believes in Lebanon’s sovereignty. Furthermore, it was the Hezbollah–Aoun alliance that prevented the election of a new president, because Iran and Syria insist on imposing Aoun as president in the same way Hezbollah’s votes have made him leader of the largest Christian parliamentary bloc. Finally, talking of “a more democratic and fairer electoral system,” demographic realities in Lebanon mean that if a fair electoral system is literally adopted it would give the Christians only one third of the seats as compared to the 50 percent ensured under the Taif Accords, which Hezbollah and Aoun oppose.
On the issue of Syrian refugees, these refugees ran away from a bloody conflict stoked by a regime which has killed around 300,000 of its own people, and displaced around 10 million more, mostly old people, women, and children. The irony here is that Mr. Bassil is a friend of that same regime, and is proud to defend and regard it as a political ally; and when the refugees’ plight worsened his party played a leading role in inciting popular anger against them.
Last but not least, on the issue of the terrorist threat, there is no doubt that ISIS poses a great threat to Lebanon, as well as the Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Nusra, and Fatah Al-Islam before them. However, these groups appeared on the Lebanese scene after Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict on the regime’s side. Similar organizations and gangs were implanted and spread out in Lebanon when it was under full control of the Syrian–Lebanese security apparatus, the same way today’s extremist groups were born and grew within Syria itself under the very eyes of its well-known police state.
Bearing this in mind, it could be argued that sectarian terrorism is not exclusive to a single religious sect, and that Washington—which seems happy for the Assad regime to remain in power, and keen to have Iran as an ally—has always viewed Iran as a rogue state and “supporter of terrorism,” and still labels Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Given these facts, there is a serious danger that Hezbollah and the Lebanese state, particularly the Lebanese army, will become two faces of the same coin, and will push the army into a war against terrorists that is pursued selectively and based on double standards.
Lebanon, with its weak and fragile institutions and society and political paralysis, is ill-equipped to survive such a war.