Lebanon in crisis: an interview with editor Samah Idriss

Fighters from the opposition-aligned Amal movement take position against pro-government fighters from the Future movement in Beirut’s Mezraa neighborhood, 8 May 2008. (Matthew Cassel)

Lebanon is currently facing a major political crisis, as armed battles have erupted in multiple districts of Beirut between pro-government and opposition forces forces led the Lebanese resistance movement Hizballah. Hizballah-led opposition forces took control of West Beirut, and handed certain areas over to the Lebanese army as the political standoff in the country continues.

Today Lebanon’s government has maintained a contested hold on official state power in Lebanon without representation from Hizballah since they withdrew their ministers over one year ago. This week the government declared illegal Hizballah’s independent communications network operating in Lebanon partly prompting the current crisis. Hizballah’s independent communications system is considered to be a critical element to the success of the Lebanese resistance group’s halting of Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon. The fate of Hizballah’s weapons is at the heart of Lebanon’s political impasse pitting the pro-US government coalition versus the opposition — fitting into the larger polarized pattern in the region.

Samah Idriss is a co-founder of the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel, lexicographer, literary critic who earned a Ph.D from Columbia University in 1991, and is editor-in-chief of al-Adab, a Lebanese Arabic-language arts and culture magazine based in Beirut. Samah is also deeply involved in the Civil Resistance Campaign in Lebanon that organizes Lebanese and internationals to provide direct aid at a grassroots level to people impacted by the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon. Samah Idriss spoke with Stefan Christoff concerning the current political crisis in Lebanon.

Stefan Christoff: First, can you describe the current situation in Beirut?

Samah Idriss: Now everything is relatively calm. All the offices of the government-backed Future Movement in West Beirut have surrendered and many of the pro-government “fighters,” many who were invited to come from northern Lebanon, often without even knowing that they were going to fight, have surrendered to the opposition and the opposition has handed these people and offices over to the Lebanese army.

Now that the forces from the March 14th movement have lost this battle, pro-government forces claim that they weren’t preparing for a war, that they aren’t organizing armed militias and that they weren’t instigating the fighting, while claiming that Hizballah is acting on behalf of Iran and Syria.

It is critical to remember that this current situation started when the Lebanese government, a couple days ago, decided to declare the Hizballah communications system or independent telephone grid as illegal. This is critical because this communications system was a major reason behind Hizballah’s victory against Israel in July 2006. Given that the Hizballah system isn’t wireless it is harder for Israel or the US to crack or decode this communications network. This communication system was key to Hizballah preventing Israeli forces from knowing the positions and movements of Hizballah and it’s leadership during the war in 2006.

So this current scenario commenced with an instigation from the western-backed government. Additionally the government wanted to kick out a person in charge at the international airport in Beirut who is close to Hizballah, in order to replace them with another person who would not be able to assist Hizballah to know who travels in and out at the airport.

These two actions from the government, the declaration of Hizballah’s communication network as illegal and the attempt to oust a Hizballah-sympathetic person at Beirut’s international airport, instigated the attack from the opposition, led by Hizballah.

West Beirut is now under the control of the Lebanese army, after the opposition took over the party offices representing the March 14th movement. Currently it’s not clear if things will develop in other areas in Lebanon such as in the mountains; this remains unclear.

SC: Now concerning the way that the current situation is being reported in the western press, we are reading a basic depiction that involves armed clashes between pro-government militias and Hizballah supporters throughout Beirut. Also there is a focus on distilling the current scenario into sectarian terms, breaking down the division as fought between Sunni and Shia forces. Also, you highlighted that Hizballah or opposition forces have handed over certain pro-government offices or Future Movement offices to the Lebanese army, which is not being widely reported in the western press. Mainstream media in North America are reporting that West Beirut is under Hizballah’s control. In this light could you offer your critiques towards the mainstream media’s coverage concerning the events in Beirut within the last 48 hours, both western media and media in the Middle East?

SI: Media that are allied with the government in Lebanon aims to present the current situation simply as sectarian strife. … First it’s important to highlight that Beirut was never strictly Sunni, while the people who are now fighting for the opposition, many belong to Beirut, live in Beirut, a city that has never been just Sunni but a mixture of all religious sects in Lebanon. This is one critical point.

Clearly there is a strategy from the government and pro-government forces to portray Hizballah as the outsiders, to try to portray Hizballah as a force coming to change the nature of Beirut by bringing in Shi’ite elements, Iranian elements, Persian elements, barbarian elements, etc. All oriental stereotypes that mainstream western media and some mainstream Arab media will quickly adopt. It is not certain, however, that this portrayal for Hizballah could work in the Arab media because Hizballah is widely respected as the major defender for the Arab cause, for the Palestinian cause.

Across the Middle East the mainstream Sunni populations don’t view Hizballah or its leader Hassan Nasrallah as a sectarian leader or simply a Shi’ite leader. However, the mainstream pro-government media in Lebanon attempt to portray Hizballah as a completely sectarian movement, in tune with the political lines fostered by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, France and the US.

Government forces in Lebanon claim they represent a peaceful vision for the country with their common slogan, “I Love Life,” while claiming that Lebanon is being invaded by the violent Hizballah now in West Beirut.

SC: Now concerning recent events that lead to the current situation, there was a call for a general strike put forward by the General Labor Confederation for 7 May. Clearly there is an economic reality to the current situation in Lebanon: growing poverty rates, little employment opportunities in the country, presenting a larger economic context to recent events. Could you offer a critique within an economic framework in the context of the current situation in Beirut?

SI: Unfortunately the opposition isn’t directly connecting the current situation to Lebanon’s economic crisis, a major political defect to the opposition.

Currently, Lebanon is experiencing many major economic problems; the minimum wage rests very low and the General Labor Confederation called a strike to demand a rise for the minimum wage in Lebanon. The government conceded just prior to the strike to slightly raise the minimum wage, not meeting the just demand put forward by the national union of workers for fair wages in Lebanon. Still, even with the raise to the minimum wage proposed by the government, one could not sustain themselves or their family on this very low wage.

Although the opposition, led by Hizballah, is allied with the General Labor Confederation, the opposition has not presented a solid economic critique of the government. Unfortunately, Lebanon’s economic reality and its impact economically on people don’t rank very high in the priorities put forward by the opposition. This is a major pitfall from the Lebanese opposition today.

SC: It could be argued that the motivation for the youth to take the streets to participate in the current clashes is directly connected to the lack of opportunities economically or for employment today in Lebanon today. Could you comment on this?

SI: Clearly, the terrible economic situation plays an important role in the current clashes. However, the people who are now fighting for the opposition are organized; it’s not a popular uprising or rebellion in the traditional sense — the opposition is being led by organized elements who have specific goals and a specific agenda. At the same time, there are some unorganized elements who burned things randomly, however, they are a minority. Broadly speaking the opposition forces are a political movement that is extremely well organized.

Also it is critical to note that many pro-government forces who fought against the opposition in recent days, were people traveled from extremely impoverished areas like Akkar in northern Lebanon, led by the Future Movement to Beirut which was offering money to impoverished people to fight against opposition forces in Beirut. In certain cases people coming from Akkar weren’t even aware prior to arriving in Beirut that they were coming to the capital to fight, thinking that they were coming to Beirut to fill labor positions; these are people who were manipulated by the Future Movement.

Many people from Akkar, in this context, quickly surrendered to opposition forces in West Beirut, declaring on local TV and radio that they weren’t aware that they were being led by pro-government forces, mainly the Future Movement, to Beirut to fight the opposition. Also some youths who fought for the opposition forces were led to fight with money, however this is a minority. It’s important to recognize that the terrible economic situation in Lebanon is leading people to fight in multiple cases.

Unfortunately, now people are not speaking about issues facing workers today in Lebanon, the critical economic issues that the General Labor Confederation put forward have been lost in the mainstream discussions surrounding the violence of recent days, while economics played a critical role in creating the current situation.

SC: Let’s focus on the current government in Lebanon. More than one year has passed since Hizballah representatives quit the government and the opposition has declared the current government as illegitimate. Can you present your perspectives on the current government in Lebanon, led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, its alliances to the governments of the US, France, Canada, and its handling on the current crisis in Lebanon?

SI: Lebanon’s government today is unconstitutiona — a government that isn’t in tune with Lebanon’s constitution in the sense that the government is supposed to represent all sects and communities in Lebanon. As soon as Hizballah’s ministers withdrew from the government it became an illegitimate government. Now the government maintains that it remains constitutional or legitimate as it refused to acknowledge the withdrawal of the Hizballah ministers, not choosing alternative ministers to represent the Shi’ite community, however clearly it’s an unconstitutional government.

On an international level, obviously this government is allied with the US, with France, with Saudi Arabia, with Egypt, viewing itself as part of the US or EU political agenda in the Middle East, that they put forward with the empty slogan, “I Love Life” in Lebanon. Today the government presents itself to the west as fighting a Syrian and Iranian axis that is based on a culture of martyrdom or a culture of death, as the government claims, while the current government represents western values in Lebanon, values put forward with empty slogans that utilize words like “freedom,” “sovereignty” and “independence.”

Actually, the government also uses language to present Hizballah as somehow an external force to Lebanon, using similar language that we use in Lebanon to describe Israeli forces. While at the time, a real external threat invaded Lebanon in 2006, the Israeli army, the current government did nothing to resist, contrary to their slogans about sovereignty, independence and freedom.

SC: I want to discuss the current crisis in Lebanon as related to the war between Lebanon and Israel in 2006. Hassan Nasrallah has made clear the importance of Hizballah’s independent telephone network to the resistance against Israel’s invasion in 2006, citing the communications network as a critical element to Hizballah’s resistance strategy. In reading the western press reports on the current crisis in Lebanon there are little parallels or connections drawn between the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon and the current crisis. Could you expand on the ways in which the current crisis and the 2006 Israeli invasion are intertwined?

SI: Hizballah’s telecommunication network is an important weapon for the resistance movement in Lebanon, playing a critical role in 2006 war. In a sense the communications system is even more important than Hizballah’s rockets or weaponry. In 2006 the entire weapons arsenal would have done little without the telecommunications network. Now for the Lebanese government to demand to control this communications network, or for it to be dismantled, is equivalent to demanding that Hizballah hand over their arms to the government.

Israel and the US first wanted to politically disarm Hizballah through UN Resolution 1559, with support from western-backed forces in Lebanon. Once this strategy failed the US and Israel tried to disarm Hizballah by force in 2006 through an invasion. In a sense it was the US that invaded Lebanon in 2006. This attempt to disarm Hizballah failed due to the Lebanese resistance. Now again the same forces are attempting to disarm Hizballah, however, through a different strategy, using different titles, and this time the focus is on the telecommunications network of Hizballah in Lebanon — a critical element to Hizballah’s arms.

Given this context it is clear why Hizballah, as expressed by a press conference given by Hassan Nasrallah this week, was outraged by the government’s decision to attempt to dismantle this telecommunications network, that without a doubt assisted in saving Lebanese lives during the 2006 Israeli attack.

Stefan Christoff is a member of Tadamon! Montreal and frequent contributor to the Electronic Intifada.

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