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Bassem Chit

The cost of US policies in Lebanon

(5 December 2005)

From Random Thoughts blog, 5 December 2005.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

War on Iraq and the destabilization of the region:

The war on Iraq was even by the words of the US administration a war for economic control and to keep the oil flow from the Middle East. Sunday Herald newspaper (UK) stated:

“President Bush’s Cabinet agreed in April 2001 that ‘Iraq remains a destabilising influence to the flow of oil to international markets from the Middle East’ and because this is an unacceptable risk to the US, ‘military intervention’ is necessary.”

Achieving control over the oil in Iraq, is not simply taking control over the oil refineries there, they need also to create a political environment in Iraq and the region to guarantee their control over such resources.

This means US interference in the region is not only limited to Iraq, but it would exceed to start fingering the present regimes in the Middle East like Syria, Iran and Lebanon.

The impact of the war was direct and fast, high fuel prices, refugees, destabilization of the political regimes in the region.

Syria was never away from being fingered by the US, During the war on Iraq, and the first stages of the occupation, the US has repeatedly attacked Syria for helping “insurgent” groups to flee through Syria or to attack from Syria, or even to transport weapons through the Iraqi-Syrian borders.

These attacks present a real threat to the regime in Syria, especially when the American troops are just miles away from Damascus. This resulted in tightening the grip of control of the Syrian regime in Syria and also in Lebanon this can be seen when Syria pushed for a change in the Lebanese constitution extending Lahoud’s presidential mandate.

Lebanon: Class, Sectarianism and the re-alignment of the ruling class

The local political scene in Lebanon at this point was witnessing an intensification of the class struggle as a result of the continuous clash between Hariri’s neo-liberal policies and the semi state-capitalist model pushed by the Syrian regime, and what added to the situation was the war on Iraq, which led the players inside the Lebanese political scene to re-align, which all in all created a highly unstable political scene.

May 27th, 2004, mass demonstration took place all over the country, protesting against the socio-economic policies as well as the rise of fuel prices; in reaction the army marched towards one of the poorest suburbs in south Beirut and started shooting live ammunition against the demonstrators, killing five workers.

At that point there was a rise in class antagonism, especially due to the repeated attacks and destruction of what is left of the trade unions.

There was a clear threat to the ruling class in the country, which forced a re-alignment of the ruling class and an intensification of the conflict within it. This was clearly seen in the repeated attacks between Lahoud and Hariri, and the forming opposition known at that point as the Bristol Coalition.

Parts of the ruling class saw that the US is determined in reshaping the regimes in the Middle East, and in an attempt to maintain its rule, two options where put to the table either the Ukrainian Model or the Iraqi Model.

But due to the high unpopularity of the present political leadership, the opposition or the Bristol coalition was not able to attract any support from the people, their demonstrations was no more than small assemblies of some of their political leaders. The opposition was mainly formed of the druze leader Walid Junblat and his party the Progressive Socialist Party, which is neither progressive, nor socialist and merely a party. Also inside the opposition is quite a collection of Christian parties that go from center right to the far right like, the Lebanese Forces. In addition to the Democratic Left which is no more than an opportunistic attempt to form a Lebanese version of the European social democracy.

At the same time Lahoud’s Coalition was in the same position, having no popular support at all, leading a coalition of mafia leaders and very corrupt politicians and Baathist propagandists.

As for Hariri, he maintained the center between both coalitions, but was leaning a bit towards the opposition. But Hariri also was far away from having any actual support from the people, except for the forced support of his several companies’ employees and the beneficiaries from his student grants. Hariri is responsible for the privatization plans, the VAT in addition to privatizing most of Beirut’s Center known as Solidere, in reference to the company that actually bought the area, and where Hariri has considerable shares in it.

After the elections in Iraq and Palestine, the US seemed more determined on continuing its new Middle East Project, with their new developed theory of constructive disharmony. The theory claims that by creating a general political disharmony or in other words destabilizing the political scene in the region, they can benefit from the resulting chaos in pushing for the creation of new puppet regimes that can serve of best interest in this new era of US politics.

This strategy was highly present especially in the obvious and direct interference of US ambassadors in the local policies of the countries they were in. In Lebanon, the US ambassador as well as the Europeans played a determining role in the local policies and allowing considerable amounts of money to flow into the country in support of political and civil society movements.

The situation was moving rather timidly, and needed somehow of a braking point, a curve, somehow a push to move things forward.

Hariri’s Assassination:

On Monday, February 14, 2005, the motorcade carrying former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri, was torn to pieces by, what it seems, 350 kilograms of TNT. The explosion killed Hariri, 7 of his companions, and 11 bystanders.

After 10 minutes of the assassination, the words “civil-war” was on every tongue, the blast reminded everyone of the horrors of the civil war that finished not so long ago.

The following days saw hundreds of thousands of Lebanese turn to the streets. People went to the streets, expressing their refusal to any violence that might start, the opposition at this point saw the situation as a golden opportunity to continue with their plans, and move to the offensive, the first step was by directly shifting the fingers of accusation towards the Syrian regime, the argument was easily won because of know history of confrontation between Syria and Hariri and because of the History of the Syrian rule over Lebanon. but still the opposition needed to fill in the huge gap between them and the people, and at this point they declared a political war, somehow of a civil unrest, which was enough to gain them enough support.

Revolution of the ruling class on itself

The opposition saw this also as a way to deflect the class struggle to a confessional and racist conflict, religious sectarianism was encouraged, which is a strategy that has been used historically by the Lebanese ruling class to oppress and demolish the class struggle by emphasizing on confessional, religious and ethnic differences, the same strategy was used during the 1860 civil war, and 1975 civil war. And this strategy also coincides with the politics used by the US administration to deal with the Middle East, and especially in Iraq.

At that point the events were accelerated to point where there was a real threat of a new civil war; tens of racist attacks were carried out all over the country mainly directed against Syrian workers, and Palestinians. This rhetoric was highly encouraged by the media, locally and internationally.

The CNN and most of the western media where always emphasizing on the Chrsitian religious identity of the people who were assassinated after Hariri even though that the 2 main figures who were assassinated (Samir Kassir and Georges Hawi) were from the communist and leftist tradition, Samir Kassir was of Palestinian origin, member of the democratic left. Georges Hawi was an ex-secretary general of the CP.

The local media, was filled with racism and confessionalism, Pamela Tannouri from Annahar newspaper said in one of her articles about the Syrians: “you know them from their faces ... they want to enforce their culture and history on us”, other newspapers showed testimonies from the opposition demonstrators saying “you know them from how they smell and how they look” placards showed statements like “100% Lebanese” during all this time the political leadership of the opposition stayed silent refusing that there is any confessionalism and racism in the streets. The loyalists camp being totally driven out of the political scene, allowed Hezbollah to go in into the scene by holding a demonstration to wave goodbye for the withdrawing Syrian troops, and actually used the same rhetoric as the opposition, Hezbollah was able to marginalize large section of the Lebanese society mainly the Shiaa, and hold it to fuel the tension which would allow him to put himself as a considerable power in the country, and he did exactly that, by holding a demonstration of nearly a million demonstrator. This actually put the whole of the country in a state of strong sectarian confrontations, many confessional and sectarian incidents were recorded, and most of the time the media stayed silent on them.

Michel Aoun, another warlord, who was living in exile, came back to country, and destabilized the opposition and withdrew from it. When the parliamentary elections were due, the country saw three massive blocks, formed mainly out of Hizbollah, the opposition led by Rafic Hariri’s son: Saed Hariri and the third pole was Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which is mainly an anti-Syrian movement.

The elections also showed a high interference of the US ambassador and diplomats as well as for French and European diplomats, and their role was not of an advisory role only but it extended itself in actually selecting candidates for the elections, especially in Beirut. Also a big collection of electoral monitoring organization spread all over the country, the participation rate in the elections showed there is still a silent majority; in some cities the electoral rates didn’t exceed 20%, which still showed the unpopularity of the political leadership despite the mass mobilizations. This high unpopularity was due to the successive betrayal of the popular movement by the leaders of the opposition.

For example, the coalition in south Lebanon which was considered a pro-Syrian coalition was formed of Hizbollah, Amal, Junblat and Saed Hariri. In Beirut, where the coalition was considered anti-Syrian was also formed of Hizbollah, Jumblat, Saed Hariri and the Christian Parties.

The dishonest politics were quite obvious, and this led to many people losing interest in the electoral process, especially after the Maronite Patriarch pushed not to lower the age of voting to 18 years old instead of 21 year, so that mainly meant that most of the people who actually fueled the demonstrations where not allowed to decide what happens to their country.

The Elections: a glass coalition

The elections resulted in a winning majority for the opposition, but still Hizbollah and Aoun Managed to get a considerable number of seats in the parliament. Lahoud was still on the presidency. Parts of the opposition were calling for the resignation of Lahoud, but the patriarch objected to these calls since the presidential seat in Lebanon is a Maronite seat and Lahoud’s resignation meant weakening the position of the Maronites in the country. This also led to the loss of trust deepening inside the supporters of the opposition.

Many of the opposition forces were hoping for a national unity coalition, but the dream didn’t last long and that is because the ruling class in such a fast attempt to reconstruct its political organization, did not manage to resolve the contradictions that are highly present in the local political scene, such as sectarianism, also the weapon used by the ruling class to mobilize the masses backfired in pushing confessional and civil-war related questions to surface again, which did not hold the coalition for long. Hizbollah and Aoun are now growing closer and closer to each other; you can see the early formation of such an alliance in the recent student elections in the universities, where hizbollah and Aoun formed an electoral alliance on a national scale.

The glass coalition will not last as long as it was intended, especially that many of the Lebanese parties are structurally unable to cope with a lot of the changes in the Lebanese society, and through the past 10 years, many of these parties has encountered many structural problems related to the internal democratic process. So basically we will see a lot of changes in the political formations in the country.

Mehlis Report: Syria, Lebanon and the free market

Mehlis, the commissioner of the UN International Independent investigation commission, Mehlis was on the front pages or most of the Lebanese local newspapers in the country for most of his stay, actually in his report he points out the extraordinary media coverage of the investigation.

Without even going into the detail if his report is actually telling us something, Mehlis report is being used consecutively by the US to corner and to “punish” Syria, which in the most probable cases would lead to economic and political sanctions like the ones that were put on Iraq. Quite recently Syria decided to link its economy to the global market by freeing up the Syrian Lira, such policy would drive large sections of society into poverty, and if the sanctions happen these people would be condemned into strong poverty and unemployment.

The White House has decided long time ago that it is essential to guarantee US economic hegemony over the world market, that is why still the currency used at OPEC is US dollars, and these policies are essential for the US also in the new open Markets in the Middle East, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, and now Syria they have all linked their currencies with the US dollar.

It’s not only that, this requires also opening up the markets, through WTO, privatization plans, grants, etc. ...

Recently, the Lebanese government is systematically attacking the majority of the population, by a series of neo-liberal policies that would condemn a large majority of society under poverty, unemployment and social discrimination. Not a long time ago, the government decided to cut aid to the agricultural sectors, they also decided to cut disability funds to 50%. Rising fuel and gas prices, there have been threats on raising the price of bread also. It doesn’t stop here, there have been serious talks on raising the VAT from 10% to 18%, and with a 200$ minimum wage, and Beirut being one of the most expensive cities in the middle east, this would actually mean a crisis.

Solidere the company that owns Beirut’s downtown has sold a considerable number of shares and property in the few months after Hariri’s death, money was being purred in from Europe as funding plans or grants, also the CNN recently did a documentary on Lebanon, which is more an advertisement for investors to come to Lebanon, we can see the first traces of market globalization with the communication sectors, which witnessed an instant drop of prices, as a result of the first steps in opening the sector for competition, which will most probably end-up in closing many service providers putting hundreds jobless, exactly what happened with the mobile phone sector. Also another indicator is the rising prices in the housing sector. Lebanon will experience a boom, which most probably will be expressed in high prices, and more class antagonism, which is slowly manifesting especially after the political scene has cooled off.

The surfacing class issues are pushing the Lebanese ruling class to use the International Investigation to maintain its dominance over the political debate in the country, and to divert attention from issues like racism, class and confessionalism.

The international investigation is used as the main propaganda tool to create the state enemy which would allow them to maintain their status, a Lebanese version of George Orwell’s 1984.

Is there any hope?

Saadallah Wannous, a well known progressive Syrian playwright said: “we are committed by hope” hope for change is always present as always as there are people. The movement is alive and we can see it re-emerging all over the Middle East.

After Hariri’s assassination and the so-called revolution the new forming far-left has been able to win the arguments over the questions of class, sectarianism, and managed to answer the questions over the economic changes, and proved to be right in its assessment of the current political changes. The democratic left, the new left centrists, allied with the government, are losing arguments in the face of radical politics, they are losing control in universities for more radical politics, and their leadership has moved to the defensive.

A movement is on the rise and this time it is coming out from ordinary people, and shows a necessity to organize, mobilize and agitate. Waiting was never an answer and it will never be, the movement in the middle east has encountered many defeats, and is still recovering, but at the same time, it is showing progress it is winning more and more support, and this time not in middle class coffee shops or bars, but now it is gaining support among ordinary people, the movement is more and more recognizing its place in the class struggle and moving from being dispersed to being more organized and more clear in politics and theory and action.

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Last updated: 3 November 2014