With sectarian rifts deepening in the Arab world, it seems possible to compare the events currently taking place in Lebanon, from the tragic yet suspenseful scene of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s siege by the Hezbollah ‘revolutionaries’, the urbanites from ‘Frangieh’s Zgharta’ and the supporters from the Maronite rural areas of General Aoun, to a scene from the depths of Islamic history – when mutineers from Iraq, Egypt and Medina lay a siege on the third Caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan’s house
Before comparing the two events it must be stressed that this similitude does not mean that the situations or facts are identical. That would be referring to the ‘identity’ of the matter when what is intended is a comparison in terms of certain aspects. Moreover, the comparison of the third caliph’s siege to that of Lebanon’s current prime minister does not imply diminishing Uthman’s status in religion and history, from a Sunni perspective of course, neither does it mean elevating Siniora’s status to that of the Sahaba (Prophet’s companions). It is, rather, an insistent image that requires further exploration, and one in which perhaps some readers would agree with.
Today, what is taking place in Lebanon is a Shia ‘revolution’. One would refer to it as such because this is exactly what’s happening without any diplomatic glossing over, but also by virtue of the ‘divine’ party’s monopolistic representation of the sect against PM Siniora, demanding that he step down because he dismissed the Hezbollah and Amal groups, in addition to some of the ‘urban’ Christian supporters of Aoun and Frangieh, who are comprised of some of the most ‘illustrious’ remnants of the joint Baath and Syrian Social National party, among others.
Siniora and his March 14 coalition are regarded as illegitimate by those besieging the government headquarters who are demanding that they yield, admit and do justice to the revolutionaries and ‘urban people’ – heedless of the constitutional regulations. Thus, the chief demand here is the resignation of Siniora’s government and the formation of a ‘national unity’ government, that is, a government in which Hezbollah and its allies can guarantee the party’s interests – particularly its weapons – and ensure that the international tribunal will not harm Syria, among other demands for other parties.
Yet Siniora rejects these demands, despite the tightening of the siege’s circle and the close proximity of the rallying youth to the extent that if he throws a punch in the air it could very well land on one of the protesters camped outside. And yet we don’t really know who the youth staging the sit-in are, pitching their tents close by. Seemingly civilian youth participating in a democratic sit-in, perhaps they could be highly trained Hezbollah members planted there, should the need arise, a stone’s throw away from the headquarters – especially since we know Hezbollah’s actions are never improvised and are quite far from chance, a fact Hezbollah’s leaders and officials take pride in. In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al Awsat earlier this week, the media official of Hezbollah’s organization committee, Ghassan Darwish boasted about the radical party’s regulatory troops who, according to him, stand at ‘20,000-strong in charge of discipline’.
However, despite the possibility of storming the headquarters and the fact that events could take a turn that would result in ‘grave consquences’, Siniora still holds his ground and refuses to budge, relinquish his position or undermine the incumbent government. He says he derives his support from the constitution. Warning against an advance into the headquarters a mere few days ago, he literally said, “I will not leave. I will sit here so long as I have the House of Representatives’ confidence. I am here based on the Lebanese people’s confidence and in accordance with the constitutional institutions.”
Compare these words with those uttered by the Caliph Uthman Ibn Affan in a conversation referenced in historical sources, which took place between him and one of the leaders of those laying the siege on his house in 35 AH. According to these sources, after the people had besieged Uthman in the house of the caliphate, Uthman asked al Ashtar [one of the leaders of the mutiny]: “What do people want from me, Ashtar? Ashtar answered: “three unavoidable things.” Uthman asked: “What are they?” to which came the reply, “they give you the choice between stepping down and letting them select who they want, or to submit yourself to their judgment as they see necessary, and if you refuse to do either, they will kill you. Uthman asked, “Are both options inevitable?” to which the answer was affirmative. Uthman said: “Regarding stepping down, by God, I would rather be beheaded than step down and turn Mohammad’s nation on one another. As for submitting myself to the people’s judgment, others have punished before me [a reference to the situation in which there were people seeking vengeance for a man the caliph had ordered to be whipped. Uthman defends himself by saying that the caliphs who preceded him had repeatedly issued punishments and retribution]. As to killing me, by God, if you do kill me, you will never love one another, you will never be united in prayer, and you will never fight an enemy together.” It is worth noting that this last ominous statement of the quote attributed to Uthman is exactly what happened after his tragic assassination in his house as an old man.
His assassins, amongst whom were the sons of the Sahaba and the residents of cities outside of Medina, climbed the walls of Uthman’s house and murdered him as he was reading from the Quran. The people were shocked, especially as Uthman was killed while he was fasting after a siege that lasted a few weeks. The events that followed began to unfold in succession; people split into parties and Uthman’s blood continued to fuel numerous major conflicts, wars broke out between all parties – and thus began the age of al fitna al kubra (great sedition).
Back to the present; what would happen if Hezbollah and its allies were successful, given this sectarian charge and agitation (there are reports indicating mounting tension in the Sunni areas), and Siniora remained firm in refusing to quit the position he assumed in accordance with the constitution, and the headquarters were indeed stormed? Would this indicate the rise of a ‘great sedition’ in Lebanon, one that will be part of a greater regional sedition between the Sunnis and the Shia in Iraq and some parts of the Gulf?
The assassination of Uthman in his house after the siege resulted in a tremendous and enduring fracture. He was assassinated by a group of people who had mixed, and often vague, demands. Some of them wanted the caliph to be firm and dismiss his Umayyad relatives from their posts, others deemed him unfit to rule. There were various demands and motives, some of which were purely subjective. Regarding the details of his assassination, the historian al Tabari recounts that Sawdan, one of Uthman’s murderers, “struck Uthman’s shoulder with a sword and split it, then stabbed him nine times with a dagger saying ‘three are for God and six are for what we have bore upon our chests.”
Undoubtedly Uthman’s murder and the revolt against him is a complicated matter that resulted in the convergence of an oppositional front where each side had its own demands. Presently, in the revolt against Siniora and his party, there exist those who want the ‘disruptive third’ [Hezbollah’s aspires to one-third representation in the government so as to acquire veto power] to protect their weapons and ‘influencing power’, and the concealed guardianship that controls Lebanon and its decisions, while continuing to serve the supporting Syria and Iran. There are those who have aspirations for the presidency, such as the ‘understanding’ General Aoun; and then there are those who want nothing save what Syria wants from them!
An important point must be stated before we can conclude this comparison; a fact that historical accounts have cited with much praise is the Caliph Uthman’s refusal to resort to arms or fight against those besieging him. When Abdullah Bin al Zubayr asked him to fight against the mutineers, Uthman said ‘No, and by God I will never fight them.’ He did that for the sake of preserving the unity of ‘Mohammad’s nation’.
Siniora would do best to follow Uthman’s lead and urge the community against Hezbollah to not to feed on Sunni fanaticism because sectarian fanaticism is grotesque and abominable in its entirety. Hopefully, Siniora will ask his supporters to calm down, act morally and hold steadfast, too. This is where the moral power should be so as to ensure that the ghouls of civil wars stay hidden in their caves.
As for Hezbollah and the “understanding” General Aoun, the truth is that the question doesn’t lie in the sanctity of Siniora’s government, or in its immunity from dismissal and quitting since this government is all others that preceded it: It is not a question about the right of the ‘divine’ party to the government or to direct it in accordance with the rules of the game. It’s not a display of power and the brandishing of a knife’s edge or even the general’s desire for the presidency chair that is already hanging on its hinges, no. Rather, the question revolves around this spirit of ‘defilement’ of Lebanese traditions, which is the very same spirit that characterizes Hezbollah now – the spirit upon which the country was established since the national pact between Riad al Solh and Bishara al Khouri through an agreement to distribute sovereign posts among the main sects wherein the Maronites would assume the presidency, the Sunnis the premiership, and the Shia the parliamentary speaker’s post. The pact also stated that internal policy would be based on ‘maintaining the balance between sects.” However, some Lebanese social historians believe that “this maintenance of sectarian balance was only a façade to maintain a social balance between the old and new classes,” according to Dr Fouad Chahine in his book “Sectarianism in Lebanon”, p. 184. He affirms that this political sectarian spirit regrettably infiltrated the nation’s superstructure and constitution in over one article, which means that Lebanon is a country of sectarian accord rather than a democratic one in the basic sense of the word.
Anyhow, sectarianism in Lebanon has not always been the result of external instigation or of the ‘the wars of others on Lebanese soil’, according to the famous Lebanese analysis. For instance, history shows that during Ibrahim Pacha’s campaign against the Levant in 1833, in an attempt to fill the Ottoman vacuum when he tries to quell the Druze feudalism in Mount Lebanon, but the feudal lords allied themselves against him under the pretext that he backed Lebanon’s Christians. In other words, that there was an external attempt that had no understanding or inclinations of sectarianism against an internal sectarian-oriented Lebanese resistance. Thus, sectarianism is an old Lebanese technique that is activated in time of need by internal drivers.
This is the reality of the Lebanese situation with all its pros and its cons, a tradition that was ‘tamed’ after the Sulh-Khori pact. Hezbollah has now violated all these traditions and it wasn’t so as to achieve a more elevated cause and a reality that can transcend sectarianism which has a unifying ‘Bismarckian’ spirit. The paradox lies in that after Hezbollah violated this political Lebanese tradition, it dealt the state of sectarian accord with a blow to transform it into a state of political sectarianism where everyone is subjugated.
Now, the fate of Siniora and his government and the actions of the protestors that surround the government’s headquarters may be a prelude to a great sedition that will strike deep into the sentiment, imagination and the conception of nationalism. In the worst-case scenario, or if Siniora was able to survive Sawdan’s ‘sword’ which tore Uthman’s fragile body, it would be a ‘modified’ replay of the disaster that took place to Uthman and his house.
In both cases, the picture is bleak in the whole region, and Lebanon is only a representative model of this picture. He who lives longer sees the most…