Lebanon and the limits of protest

Jerusalem Post- 16/02/2011

Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri’s declaration this week that his March 14 movement will enter the opposition serves to clarify the situation in Lebanon.

The country is today openly under the control of a coalition of pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian forces.

The seemingly permanent Lebanese political crisis is today overshadowed by more dramatic events under way in Egypt and Iran.

The state of affairs in tiny Lebanon may nevertheless offer some clues as to the likely direction of events further afield.

Hariri listed three elements as underlying his decision.

These were: March 14’s commitment to the Lebanese constitution, its support for the Special Tribunal on Lebanon (investigating the murder of Rafik Hariri) and its opposition to ‘the predominance of weapons’ (code for Hezbollah’s private military capacity, held without seeking the consent of other Lebanese sects).

These have been the basis of the March 14 project since its inception.

Hariri’s decision is therefore an acknowledgement of political defeat. This defeat has come despite his movement’s narrow electoral victory in 2009.

In his speech, the former prime minister offered ironic congratulations to the Hezbollah-led forces which have bested him.

“We congratulate them on a majority that was hijacked by the intimidation of weapons,” he said. “And we congratulate them on a power that was stolen from the will of the voters.”

This is a fairly accurate summary of the situation.

The independence intifada, or Cedar Revolution of 2005, was supposed to husband a new age of representative and constitutional politics in Lebanon. Of this ambition, there remains the Hariri Tribunal. It remains only because it is internationally constituted, and therefore cannot simply be intimidated out of existence by the arms of Iranian or Syrian proxies.

The now near-forgotten Cedar Revolution was in many ways a prototype of the two uprisings just witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt: A youthful, technologically savvy stratum of the population was at the center of the events.

(Or at least prominently involved in the events, and favored by the Western media in its coverage of them.) The demand of the demonstrators seemed to set them apart from the familiar currents of politics in the Arab world.

They presented themselves as neither Islamist, nor old-style Arab nationalist. Indeed in essence their demand seemed to be precisely for their country to move beyond these narrow definitions, and to embrace the trans-national possibilities of the 21st century.

The Cedar Revolution enjoyed its brief moment of triumph in the spring of 2005, with the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

Iran, Syria and their allies then spent the subsequent halfdecade patiently working to destroy any chances for the March 14 project to succeed.

The methods employed to ensure this were somewhat oldschool: proxy political-military organizations and a campaign of terror.

These methods succeeded.

Hariri’s announcement this week was an acknowledgement of this.

Still, the defeat of the March 14 movement by Iran, Hezbollah, Syria et al was not simply the defeat of the new world by the old. It wasn’t just Twitter and Facebook versus the clanking, brutal methods of the mid-20th century.

On the contrary, Hezbollah and its allies also know about popular mobilization and social media, and are masters at messaging and propaganda.

In this, they resemble their March 14 rivals – and differ sharply from the old-world Arab dictators just laid low in Tunisia and Egypt. Yet their ability to tell a story goes hand-in-hand with, and complements, their readiness to kill.

March 14 only had the former.

This absence proved their undoing.

Mubarak, of course, only had the latter, and when his patrons refused to let him use it, that was the end of him.

Which brings us to the present.

As of now, the current wave of unrest has brought down two old-fashioned, pro-Western Arab leaders.

It cannot be predicted which forces will rise in these countries in the months ahead. But from a strategic point of view – again as of now – the net result has been the weakening of the pro-Western regional camp, and hence by default the strengthening of the pro-Iranian and Islamist alliance.

Unrest has now broken out in Iran, the mother-ship which made possible the victory of Hezbollah et al in Lebanon.

In the past – as the microcosm of Lebanon and March 14, and the Iranian demonstrations of 2009 show – the methods of the Islamic Republic and its proxies have been sufficient to see-off the dreams of young, secular, Western-oriented demonstrators.

The meaning of the current wave of regional unrest will thus be decisively defined on the streets of Tehran.

If, as past experience in Lebanon and Iran suggests is most likely, the regime succeeds in suppressing the dissent, this will mean that the pro-Iranian camp can continue to happily observe pro-US regimes in the region tear themselves apart.

They can rest easy in the knowledge that they themselves have developed a version of brutal, authoritarian, ideological rule which can trump any card the protestors can play.

The resultant collapse of confidence in the US as a guarantor will play directly into their hands.

If not, then the March 14 precedent does not apply, and we will be entering a new era in the region.

The game’s afoot. Let’s wait and see. For what it’s worth, my money’s on the former.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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