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Home   |   The Socialist 12 March 2005   |   Join the Socialist Party

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A new crisis in the Middle East?

ONCE AGAIN the Middle East is in turmoil. As ROBERT BECHERT explains, the 14 February assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri has plunged Lebanon into crisis and given an opportunity to President Bush to implement more of the US neo-conservatives' agenda in the Middle East.

LEBANON'S GOVERNMENT has resigned ahead of elections previously scheduled for May and, under increasing international pressure, Syria's President Assad announced a re-deployment of troops to the Bekaa valley.

This move was in line with the 1989 Taif Accord, signed towards the end of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. But it is over 13 years later than originally scheduled and not in accordance with last September's UN resolution 1559 demanding the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops.

Within Lebanon a polarisation is taking place with up to 100,000 demonstrating in Beirut on 7 March against the Syrian supported President Lahoud and over 500,000 attending a Hezbollah demonstration to "thank Syria" and to reject US demands that it dissolve its armed wing. This development poses the outbreak of renewed sectarian conflict.

The US has taken the opportunity to try to re-establish Western dominance over Lebanon, weaken opposition to the deal it is trying to broker between the Israeli government and the new Palestinian leadership and, possibly, take steps to remove the current Syrian regime.

Now the US government is demanding the implementation of UN resolution 1559, a joint US and French effort. The US state department effectively dismissed Assad's re-deployment statement, saying: "As President Bush said (on) Friday, when the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal - no half-hearted measures."

US hypocrisy

Of course this is hypocrisy. Like all UN member countries, the US government simply picks and chooses which UN resolutions it acts upon and which it ignores.

The Bush administration while loudly supporting resolution 1559 does not even mention UN resolution 242 from 1967 that demanded the withdrawal of Israeli forces from areas occupied in Six Day War; likewise with resolution 446 from 1979 that declared that Israeli settlements in the occupied areas are illegal. Moreover, nothing is heard from Washington about 1981's resolution 497 that declared legally "null and void" Israel's annexation of Syria's Golan Heights, territory also occupied in 1967.

The Syrian regime was widely blamed, both in Lebanon and internationally, for Hariri's assassination. But it cannot be certain who killed Hariri, a former supporter of the Damascus regime. Hariri, who resigned as prime minister last October, was planning a comeback as head of a united opposition in the parliamentary elections scheduled for May.

However, there is also the suspicion that Hariri was killed by elements that wanted to galvanise opposition to the Syrian regime in Lebanon and internationally, thereby providing the US and other imperialist powers with an excuse to intervene.

Hariri's killing shocked many Lebanese. Over 200,000 of Lebanon's 3.7 million population attended Hariri's funeral, a crowd representing many classes and religious and ethnic groupings within Lebanon. An important reason for the massive reaction to Hariri's killing was fear that it could re-ignite the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 after killing around 150,000 people, about 4% of the country's total population.

But Hariri's funeral and especially the protests that developed afterwards reflected Lebanon's historic divisions. Many media reports do not comment on the make-up of the protesters, an important question in a country so deeply religiously and ethnically divided. What is clear is that the Shia Muslim population, generally poor and about 40% of the total, was hardly at all involved in the protests that led to the government's resignation. The Financial Times said that they are "still on the side of the pro-Syrian government".

A BBC reporter wrote of "how Lebanon's middle and upper classes have been woken from their usual lethargy by the assassination of Hariri," and that "Some people here are jokingly calling the phenomenon 'the Gucci revolution'..." Behind these protests is the fear that the assassination will both bring a stop to the country's reconstruction and limit tourism that has been a very important economic factor.

These later protests were initially far smaller than those who came out for Hariri's funeral. A former US diplomat spoke of 25,000 protesting on 28 February. Many of the recent Western media reports did not give numbers who were on the streets.

Hariri had been prime minister for 10 of the 15 years since the civil war ended. He had sponsored the massive rebuilding programme but this had slowed down. However, as this reconstruction had been financed largely by loans, Lebanon now has a $35 billion state debt, over 185% of its GDP - a "catastrophic financial position," reported The Times (15/2/05). This is the background to International Monetary Fund demands for massive spending cuts, privatisations and the holding down of living standards, in a situation where unemployment is around 20%.


Hariri's terms in office had been marked by regular workers' protests against his government's policies. The main trade union federation, the CGT (General Confederation of Labour), called one general strike in practically every year Hariri was prime minister. Unfortunately, these were mostly token actions, not part of a serious campaign to achieve the workers' demands including higher pay and an end to privatisation.

A general strike in October 2003 stopped Lebanon as workers demanded an end to the freeze on the minimum wage in effect since 1996, opposed higher taxes and job cuts and called for an increase in social spending. A central Beirut demo of many young workers chanted, "stop the waste and the plundering, give bread to the poor".

Then in May 2004, after spontaneous protests the previous month, the army shot five workers in the very poor Shia Muslim Beirut suburb of Hay-al-Sellom as they took part in a one-day CGT general strike, repression that led to widespread protests in the following days. But, as before, the CGT leadership gave no direction and, fearful of what more protests would mean, called off a further general strike scheduled for the end of June.

As has been seen in many other countries, when the working-class movement does not act as a unifying force then working people can be divided and other forces set the pace. There is the possibility of renewed sectarian tensions both between Lebanese and also against Syrians. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians work in Lebanon and, after attacks on them since Hariri's assassination, many have fled.


The Syrian regime had its own reasons for remaining in Lebanon, reasons that include finance and retaining a bargaining chip in relation to its attempts to regain the Golan Heights that Israel captured during the 1967 war. This was why the Syrian regime had ignored the parts of the 1989 Taif Accord, the basis for ending the civil war, that called for all its troops to relocate to the Beqaa Valley in eastern Lebanon prior to a total withdrawal.

This was one factor in the demands of some Lebanese for all Syrian troops to leave. Additionally, with the prospect of support from the US and European Union, there are those who hope of returning to the country's previous western backed position as the "Switzerland of the Middle East", trying to isolate itself from developments in the rest of Arab world. Many Shias however were prepared to tolerate the Syrian troops as a counter-weight to the threat of new Israeli interventions.

Although Syria was not included in Bush's "axis of evil" speech of 2003 it has now jumped to the top of Bush's foreign policy agenda. Of course the "axis" speech was made in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and Bush did not want Syria to cause any difficulties for the attack on Iraq. Now the situation has changed because the US and Israeli governments see Syria and especially Hezbollah (the mainly Shia Muslim movement), as a threat to their attempt to reach a deal with the new moderate Palestinian leadership.

Hezbollah is the only Arab force that can claim to have defeated the Israeli military. After a first invasion in 1978 Israeli forces again invaded Lebanon in 1982, during which time they laid siege to Beirut before pulling back to southern Lebanon in 1985.

Hezbollah fighters attacked both the Israeli army and their Christian proxy force, the South Lebanon Army, undermined the occupation and, in May 2000, was able to force an earlier than expected withdrawal. On the basis of both this record of resistance and the social and education work it did amongst the Shias, one of the poorest parts of Lebanese society, Hezbollah was able to build a powerful base. It now has a bloc of 12 deputies in the 124-seat parliament.

It is because Hezbollah stands out as a symbol of resistance that the US linked in the UN 1559 resolution the question of its disarmament to the issue of the withdrawal of Syrian troops and insists that Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation.

The tragedy in Lebanon is that the working class, despite its long history of struggle, is not setting the pace at the present time. Different religious and ethnic factions and leaders dominate and this weakens the resistance to the capitalists' demands as well as posing the renewed threat of sectarian conflict.

A programme that built upon the lessons of Lebanese workers' recent struggles, combined support for democratic rights with the socialist policies necessary for a genuine reconstruction and development, could win widespread support.

Such a movement could cut across religious divisions as well as appealing to the working masses in Syria and be an example to Israeli workers and youth that there is a socialist alternative to the chaos and poverty that repeatedly grips the entire region.

A legacy of imperialism

HISTORICALLY, THE Lebanon had been created by the French in 1920 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and was made up of different Christian and Muslim denominations.

The French included in Lebanon Muslim areas that had previously looked towards Damascus and that wanted to join the newly formed Syria.

Following mass protests, Lebanon won independence from France at the end of 1943. On the basis of the 1932 census that showed that Christians were 54% of the population it was agreed in the so-called "National Covenant" of 1943 that seats in the parliament would be distributed on a ratio of six Christians to five Muslims.

On this basis the President would be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the parliament's speaker would be a Shia Muslim, while the Defence Minister was usually drawn from the Druze community.

Although Lebanon, in comparison with the rest of Middle East, was prosperous for a period, the country faced regular upheavals. In 1958, US marines intervened to aid the then pro-US president.

Over decades shifts in the population balance, including the influx of mainly Sunni Muslim Palestinian refugees, undermined the 1943 ratio. While no census has been held since 1932, in 1986 the CIA estimated that the religious/ethnic balance was 41% Shia, 27% Sunni, 7% Druze, 16% Maronite, 5% Greek Orthodox and 3% Greek Catholics.

In addition, there are currently about 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, about 10% of the total population.

Internicine struggles and the weakening of the right-wing Christian leaders' ethnic position, led increasingly to their reliance on support from outside forces, including Israel, the US and sometimes Syria.

This was one of the factors in the 15-year long civil war that tore Lebanon apart on largely religious or national lines.

In 1976 Syrian forces intervened - backed by most Arab governments, the US and Israel - and prevented the defeat of the Christian militias at that time.

Later, in 1982, firstly Israeli troops invaded and then, three months later, US, French and Italian troops arrived as "peacekeepers", but withdrew in early 1984 after suffering heavy casualties in two huge bombings in October 1983.

'Democracy' and the neo-cons offensive

THE LEBANESE government's resignation has been hailed as a victory for the "people" and a step towards "democracy". Many commentators are asking whether this marks another victory for the US "neo-cons" and their plans for the Middle East.

Certainly Bush and Co. have seized the initiative, both in terms of advancing their own plans and in propaganda. But as the historian Timothy Garton Ash commented: "There's a problem if the brand name for Lebanese people power - cedar revolution - seems to come from a senior American official, who in the next breath talks about 'freedom from foreign influence'." (The Guardian, 2 March)

The presentation of the Bush government as fighters for "democracy" is really a cynical cover for their policies, in the same way that they lied about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's links with 9/11. However, in some countries, illusions in these democratic promises can exist, if only for a short time.

An important part of this US propaganda offensive is the recent Iraqi elections, particularly the high turnout amongst Kurds and Shias. However, relatively early elections were not in Bush's original plans for Iraq. Only the threat of mass protests, particularly by the Iraqi Shias, forced the US to change its plans, hold elections and try to come to a deal with different Iraqi leaders.

It is possible that in other Middle Eastern countries the protests in Lebanon and even the holding of elections in Iraq will encourage further popular attempts to win greater democratic rights, but the masses will be in for a bitter disappointment if they put their trust in the promises of Bush. In the past, US imperialism has supported the most bloody repression to protect its interests.

US support for terror

Bush has denounced the blowing up of Hariri but the US actively supported the 1973 military coup which brought general Pinochet's extreme right-wing dictatorship to power in Chile. In 1976, Pinochet's agents blew up a car in Washington DC carrying Orlando Letelier, an exiled former minister under the left-wing Allende government. Despite this terrorist act the US supported Pinochet in power for a further 14 years.

In country after country the most basic democratic rights have not been granted "from above" but secured only after mass struggle, usually led by the workers' movement.

History has shown many times that when mass movements threaten capitalism itself the capitalist class has always been prepared to use repression ranging from widespread arrests to fascism to civil war in order to defend its rule.

John Negroponte, the outgoing US ambassador in Iraq and the incoming US security tsar, was involved in the 1980s in aiding the extreme right-wing "Contra" fighters in Nicaragua and the creation of military death squads in Honduras.

The Bush administration, far from stabilising the Middle East, has destabilised the entire region. The popular anger from below now threatens a number of its client regimes.

This is the reason why it is now advocating a policy of limited, sometimes very limited, 'reform' from the top in the hope of preventing revolution from below.

Thus in a matter of weeks the Mubarak regime in Egypt has gone from violently suppressing what it called "futile" demands for democratic rights to announcing a limited opening up of the next presidential election. However, at the end of the day, Bush will work to ensure that US imperialism either directly, or behind the scenes, maintains its interests in the region.

At the same time this policy is allowing Bush to dress up in democratic colours and seek to exploit the masses' desire for change. In some countries it is continuing a tactic, developed during the collapse of the former soviet union and the eastern European states, of exploiting the masses' demands for democratic rights, changes and hostility to the old elite, in order to bring to power pro-imperialist regimes.

However, imperialism is only able to carry this policy out because of the current absence of a strong socialist workers' movement that can offer a real alternative.

A bloody week in the countryside


Home   |   The Socialist 12 March 2005  |   Join the Socialist Party

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In this issue

Pensions: 'We're fighting back'

NHS: 'Over performing' but under-funded

Oppose Clarke's terror bill

Review: Detention undercover

When is a cut not a cut?

The real cost of war and occupation

Crisis for republicans in Northern Ireland - political alternative needed

Germany: Challenges, dangers and opportunities

Lebanon: A new crisis in the Middle East?

Bush threatens women's rights

Brazil: A bloody week in the countryside


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