Illiberal Lebanon: Power and Position at the Margin of the Arab Spring

Over the past several months a wave of popular uprisings has threatened to collapse the long-standing Middle Eastern order. While the dictators in Tunisia and Egyptia have fallen, others, such as Jordan’s King Abdullah II, scramble to pacify their citizens with military police and vague promises of future reform. Others, such as Libya, Yemen and Syria, continue to deploy force against their own citizens, and the Saudis have seen fit to invade Bahrain in support of conservative elements of its royal family. In each case, these struggles have evolved into more or less militarized conflict as local politico-economic forces and their transnational backers struggle for position [as in the phrase ” jockey for position” in a newly emerging Arab world.

Lebanon, like its neighbors, is on the brink of civil war, although for reasons quite different from those that animate the Arab Spring. Popular protest has been limited to relatively small demonstrations against such manifestations of Lebanon’s sectarian system as the prohibition of civil marriage. The only civilian deaths have been caused Israeli troops who fired across the border at protesters engaged in a symbolic effort to walk to what was once Palestine. Some have suggested that the reason for the absence of a political “spring” is that Lebanon’s democratic institutions and freedoms, however imperfect, nonetheless help release political pressures such as those that afflict Lebanon’s more dictatorial neighbors. The optimist might agree.

The optimist, however, likely would not be Lebanese. Many Lebanese are quite pessimistic about prospects for either democracy or peace. Indeed, since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanon’s “free market” economy has enriched an eversmaller circle of elite families while the percentage of those in poverty grows ever larger. Accordingly, the politico-economic structures that enforce this order, since the end of the civil war, have become stronger and more deeply entrenched. The last major outpouring of popular will – the so-called “Cedar Revolution” that followed the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri – dashed the hopes of everyday people for deeper economic and political reform. Rather, the popular energies unleashed during that spring uprising were quickly co-opted by Lebanon’s elite, which turned them toward illiberal purposes: the reconstruction and fortification of the sectarian regime that dominated Lebanon during the darkest days of civil war.

Now, as the democratic aspirations of the Arab peoples continue to destabilize the region, the stakes in Lebanon become ever higher and the brink upon which to maneuver evermore narrow. This is not a function of internal Lebanese politics alone. Rather, Lebanon’s fate will unfold at the intersection of local, regional and global struggles for power. Indeed, as the United States recovers from the loss of friendly dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, it too seeks to turn the popular energies unleashed by the Arab Spring toward its own ends. Within this context the Lebanese find themselves hostage to a most dangerous multi-layered conflict – one in which their own illiberal elite and their regional patrons struggle against each other for power and position within an emergent U.S.-sponsored regional order. It is this transnational conflict that today threatens to return Lebanon to civil war.

Lebanese political terrain defies easy categorization. What the U.S. media and think tank pundits refer to (myopically) as the “pro-Western” or as (quite mistakenly) the “democratic” forces, are in fact a multisectarian alliance of elite families, including the right-wing “Christian” militia leaders Amin Gemayel and Samir Geagea. Dominated by billionaire Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain leader, this grouping takes its name from the March 14 demonstrations that anchored the Cedar Revolution. Catering to the more self-consciously (or rather self-described) “cosmopolitan” financial-mercantile elite, this alliance is linked to and backed by Saudi Arabia, Israel, Europe and the United States.

Similarly misunderstood are those who stand against this transnational configuration. The U.S. media portray Lebanese opposition to U.S. interests as rooted in an intrinsically anti-Western Islam embodied in the Shiite Hezbollah. In reality, Hezbollah is but one party within a larger, cross-sectarian March 8 coalition, so named for a day of demonstrations in support of Syria’s continued “brotherly” role in Lebanon. This coalition includes the Shiite Amal movement of militia leader Nabih Berri and the country’s largest “Christian” party, that of former Gen. Michel Aoun, as well as smaller Christian and Druze groupings that emerged from civil war militias, such as the Frangieh family’s Marada movement and the Jumblatt family’s largely Druze Progressive Socialist Party. Rooted in more populist politics, this alliance, in turn, is linked to and supported by Syria and Iran.

The balance of forces in Lebanon, then, cannot be reduced to simple categories such as Sunni/Shia, Muslim/Christian, Pro- Western/Anti-Western, pro-democratic/ anti-democratic etc. Nor are these alignments static. As Miya Mikdashi points out at, many March 14 supporters, for example, today choke on the alliance with Geagea, an extreme right-wing “Christian” warlord.1 Similarly, Aoun once fought a bloody campaign against the Syrian army in the name of Lebanese independence. The delicate balance of anti-democratic forces in Lebanon today embodies, in microcosm, the regional political alignments borne of earlier U.S. efforts – beginning in the 1990s – to forge a “new Middle East.” Newly freed from Cold War competition and confident that the Oslo Peace Process would succeed, the United States sought Israeli hegemony over a regional economic order financed by petrodollars pumped from the Arab Gulf.

This agenda, of course did not fare well. By the end of the Clinton years the “peace process” existed in name only. Since, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to say nothing of the subterranean war on terror, further weakened the U.S. vis-a-vis its regional adversaries. Washington’s Lebanese allies, such as the late Hariri, suffered a similar fate. Despite efforts to paint the Cedar Revolution as a Bush administration victory – Washington’s allies did, after all, force the withdrawal of Syrian troops – the influence of Syria’s intelligence services and that of its local allies continued to grow at the expense of U.S. clients. This process accelerated further with U.S. diplomatic cover for Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, despite the targeting of densely populated Shiite residential areas and the country’s civilian infrastructure.

With Hezbollah’s stature buttressed by its performance against Israel in that war and Syrian influence as great as ever, the March 14 bloc, its regional allies and the United States turned to international legal mechanisms to weaken their rivals. The United Nations, at the insistence of the United States and France had already created an International Independent Investigation Commission (IIIC) to investigate Hariri’s assassination. Syria, the target of the IIIC investigations, and its allies have consistently charged that the commission was little more than a political tool in the hands of the United States; a claim backed by what seems to have been systematic bias in the work of the first commissioner, Detlev Mehlis.2

By 2007, it was clear that parliament would not or could not ratify – in line with Lebanese law – the creation of an international tribunal to prosecute suspects. So the government of then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, the late Hariri’s right-hand man, formally asked the U.N. Security Council to circumvent Lebanon’s parliament and unilaterally impose a Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). Under U.S. and French pressure the Security Council did just that.

As the tribunal set about its work, the conflict between the two alliances came to a head in 2008, when the March 14 bloc’s efforts to disrupt a Hezbollah communications network led to a brief military confrontation between the party’s fighters and Saad Hariri’s own private militia. Regional forces, however, prevented further escalation. Qatar, eager to increase its own influence in Beirut, negotiated a new local detente blessed by Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and, apparently, a U.S. administration willing to trade its Lebanese allies for calm in Iraq.

The so-called “Doha Accord” held through the following year. The 2009 elections, in which March 8 candidates won the popular vote, but the March 14 alliance won enough key constituencies to remain in power, perpetuated the paralysis. In the resulting “national unity government,” March 8 secured enough ministerial posts that, without them, the government would fall. Any further pursuit of the STL agenda would risk instability, wanted by neither local nor regional powers, and so efforts toward an understanding between Syria and Saudi Arabia that would enable its burial, were begun.

Detente was short-lived. Just as it seemed that the tribunal might be sacrificed to regional political priorities, Saad Hariri rejected efforts to put the STL to rest, allegedly at the request of a United States unwilling to forego the long-term leverage over the Lebanese government that the essentially open-ended tribunal process represents. March 8 ministers, accusing Hariri and the U.S. of undermining the 2008 accord, withdrew from the government in late January 2011, precipitating a crisis that left Beirut without a government just as the Arab Spring erupted.

Through the first half of 2011, a new prime minister, Najib Mikati, undertook to form a new national unity Cabinet. Unfortunately, March 14 politicians adopted the rhetoric of the U.S. and its regional allies, which seek to paint the March 8 resignations as a Hezbollah “coup.” In this hyperbolic rhetorical world, Mikati – a Sunni billionaire businessman and trustee of the American University of Beirut – is represented as merely an Iranian surrogate. Sa ad al-Hariri, who retreated to his home in Paris, pledged that the March 14 bloc, rather than cooperate with Mikati, would endeavor to bring his government down. Perhaps as a harbinger of things to come, his local allies have turned to thinly veiled sectarian rhetoric, seeking to stoke the flames of Sunni animosity toward their Shiite brethren. The STL has ratcheted up tension further. As a seeming confirmation of the March 8 bloc’s argument that the tribunal is a political entity created to enforce U.S. will, it handed down its first four indictments – now naming four Hezbollah members – just as Mikati announced the successful formation of a new government.

March 8, in turn, has increased its own defiant rhetoric. In addition to threatening further instability should any Lebanese government (Mikati’s, it seems, included) choose to cooperate with the tribunal, Hezbollah has adopted two further tactics. 3 The first is to argue that the tribunal constitutes a violation of Lebanese sovereignty, a task made simpler by the early failures of the IIIC. Second, in addition to refloating the alternative theory that Hariri was in fact assassinated by Israel, Hezbollah has sought to tie the STL directly to foreign intelligence agencies such as the CIA. Once again, Lebanon is moving toward the brink.

As both March 14 and March 8 make their cases, their members have to take into account these powerful outside interests. Hezbollah, for example, is finding it difficult to maintain its hard-earned reputation for integrity and champion of the dispossessed – both of which have facilitated its working relationship with left-leaning elements of its coalition. Party leaders publically support the Syrian dictatorship despite its violent response to its citizens’ demand for democratic and economic reform, and they have done little to promote a competent state apparatus within Lebanon that might benefit all Lebanese. March 14, for its part, is unable to convince its countrymen that it is anything more than an elite clique, especially after standing with the United States against Lebanese Shiites in the wake of the 2006 war with Israel, when the Siniora government delayed reconstruction of Shiite areas. March 14’s decision to cede national authority for the STL to the U.N. further undermines its ability to move any Lebanese beyond members’ core constituencies.

To be sure, average Lebanese would much rather have political representatives address the pressing social and economic problems they face, such as the lack of economic opportunity, for example, or the rising cost of living. They would prefer properly functioning basic infrastructure, that might provide safe drinking water rather than salty seepage from the Mediterranean Sea, or a sewer system that prevents Beirut from flooding with the slightest sprinkle of rain.

That these issues are not on the radar of the political class speaks volumes about the Lebanese political system today. Indeed, in a context in which political longevity is determined not by responsiveness to local needs, but rather by fealty to outside powers, the rhetoric of the political class rings evermore hollow to all but those moved by the most pernicious identity politics.

It is the turn to the lowbrow politics of sectarianism that renders Lebanese politics increasingly dangerous. There is a deepening unease in Lebanon that the current crisis may escape the control of a political class short on national vision and diplomatic skills. This danger is magnified as the regional context differs dramatically from the last time crisis boiled over to violence. Indeed, with the upheaval of the Arab Spring, the regional players today may have neither the will nor the focus needed to restore the 2008 Doha detente.

Syria, battling its own uprising, likely will seek stability in Beirut, but may not have the energy or the means to enforce it. Iran and Saudi Arabia, however, tend to reinforce the worst in each other. Iran, facing U.S. and Saudi pressure, will retain Hezbollah and the March 8 alliance as a counterweight. This, of course, exacerbates the fear of a Saudi Arabia keen to protect its dominance in the region and so prone to seeing Iranian plots everywhere.

Israel, too, smarting from its military failures in 2006, and fearful of a U.S. rapprochement with a more democratic Muslim world, is overeager to see an Islamic fundamentalist threat on its northern border. Hezbollah, in turn, pressed from all sides, may increase tension with Israel as a means of shoring up internal support amongst true believers, and placing its adversaries in the difficult position of having to choose between Lebanon and the regional designs of the U.S. and its allies. A new dispute – such as that just beginning, over off -shore natural gas fields claimed by both Beirut and Tel Aviv – may present an opportunity to do so.

Clearly, while Lebanese alliances engage in a dangerous brinksmanship, their regional patrons seem, at this juncture, unable or unwilling to alleviate the tension. Within this context, a judicious United States holds the key. How the U.S. defines and pursues its interests – and the degree to which it can resist being pulled to sacrifice those interests on the behalf of regional powers – will determine whether or not Lebanon can survive the larger storms the Arab Spring may yet produce.

Najib Hourani is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Geography at Michigan State University. Dr. Hourani’s research focuses on questions of urban political economy in Lebanon.

1Maya Mikdashi “My Coming Out Story” Jadaliyya June 21, 2011.

2For a detailed account of the IIIC and its operations see Bouhabib, Melia Amal, 2009.

3″Power and Perception: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon.” Unpublished Paper, 2009. Available at “”

  • Most Viewed This Week on TIM

  • Latest comments on TIM

  • About the autor


    Latest at tim

    See our Current issue

    Join our Newsletter

    Enter your e-mail address below to receive periodic updates from The Islamic Monthly.

  • Follow us on


    Comments are closed