Monday, June 1, 2009

The Upcoming Elections in Lebanon - and the Wider Regional Stakes

This story from today's The National (Abu Dhabi) offers an image of Sunni-Shia co-existence in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, where - as the report describes - "on almost every corner, Hizbollah and Amal’s slain fighters peer down from yellowing photographs, honoured even 20 years after their deaths." The people to whom the reporter spoke seem confident in local Hezbollah militias as a deterrent to the IDF.

But beneath that veneer there lurks - or so it seems to me - an awareness that events over the next few weeks may bring real trouble. If Hezbollah and its allies prevail in the upcoming elections in Lebanon, elements in the current Israeli goverment are likely to raise once again the spectre of imminent existential threat and demand some kind of pre-emptive strike against the new government. Netanyahu will lament the new "terrorist" regime (even though it will have been elected by what will likely be a fair democratic process, as was Hamas in 2006); the US may well follow suit. (In his recent visit there, Joe Biden threatened the Lebanese government with being cut off from any further US succor in the event of a Hezbollah win.) European nations, on the other hand, have begun to deal with Hezbollah as a legitimate political entity. It will be more than interesting to track the impact of a Hezbollah win on US-EU relations.

More worrisome, though, is the prospect that Israel might use a Hezbollah victory in Lebanon as a pretext to either launch a military strike into Lebanon or try to decapitate Hezbollah by going after its leader, Hasan Nasrallah - and, in so doing, force Hezbollah's Iranian supporters into a reprisal that would then "legitimate" an Israeli strike against Iran itself. The possible consequences of that are, of course, catastrophic almost beyond imagination.

Haven from politics in Hizbollah heartland an oasis of calm

Mitchell Prothero, Foreign Correspondent

  • Last Updated: June 01. 2009 11:32PM UAE / June 1. 2009 7:32PM GMT

The markets of Tyre, Lebanon’s southern most city, are free of political advertising due to Hizbollah’s dominance in the area. Mitchell Prothero / The National

BEIRUT // Abu Marwan is very old and, thus, when asked about Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections and concerns that they could lead to renewed sectarian violence, he reached back into French history for his answer.

“When Charles de Gaulle lost an election, he said: ‘If 350 different kinds of cheese don’t satisfy these people, what can I do?’” the tailor recounted. His shop is in Tyre’s market, which has been in use for thousands of years.

“In Lebanon, we have 18 different religions and sects. If 18 sects can’t agree on one thing to make the people’s lives better, then there will be no consensus or stability.”

While much of Lebanon fears a return to such violence, as a western-aligned government dominated by Sunnis, Druze and some Christians does battle with mainstream Shiite parties led by the militant group Hizbollah and its Christian allies in Sunday’s elections, Tyre is a remarkable oasis of election calm.

In stark contrast to the rest of Lebanon, few election posters can be seen adorning walls and homes and residents joke that not a single election rally has been held in the picturesque port city just 10km from the tense border with Israel. The lack of election drama can be strongly attributed to Hizbollah and its more secular Shiite ally, the Amal Movement, completely dominating local politics.

Tyre might not have election posters, but on almost every corner, Hizbollah and Amal’s slain fighters peer down from yellowing photographs, honoured even 20 years after their deaths.

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Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah’s leader, likes to refer to the nearby town of Bint Jibal as the “heart of the resistance” against Israel, but Tyre serves as the group’s brain, as it remains a critical command and control centre for the group both politically and militarily. The largest city in Lebanon’s troubled south, its overwhelmingly Shiite population and a long history of abuse at the hands of the Israelis has made “the Resistance” an almost divine force in the eyes of local residents.

Such is the faith in the decision-making of the Hizbollah leadership that hardly anyone seemed bothered that the largest military manoeuvres in Israeli history are occurring just over the border, close enough that artillery explosions could be heard through the city streets yesterday. Throughout the region, rumours fly that an opposition win that brings Hizbollah into national power will be quickly followed by war with Israel, but the people of Tyre have simply seen too many wars to really care. “The people who live here, we trust the resistance,” said Abu Ali, working at a clothing stall in the market. “We have no fear of war any more as long as the resistance is taking the decisions.”

Abu Marwan agrees.

“The people here are used to a situation of war and damage,” he said. “I lost my old shop in 1978 when the Israelis invaded. So I opened this one. We’re immune to the fear of damage.”

Tyre bustles with confidence that residents say came after the 2006 summer war with Israel. Although the city was damaged and its outlaying villages completely destroyed, the area quickly bounced back economically, voiding many of the sectarian problems in the rest of Lebanon because of close ties between the majority Shiite and the small Christian and Sunni communities.

“Last May, while Beirut burnt, we didn’t even see one fistfight, even in the civil war we never had any sectarian violence,” bragged Abu Mazloun, who runs the bustling Salinas restaurant along Tyre’s lovely seafront. Popular with United Nations personnel, western aid workers and even Hizbollah officials, his business is the best its ever been, he boasted.

“We’re not worried about Israel either,” he said. “As southerners, if there’s a war, it’s nothing new to us. If we have a mentality of being afraid, then we’d never go out. So we just act like it won’t happen and then rebuild if it does. No problem.”

Part of what instils this confidence is the booming economy, which despite the damage in 2006, was jump-started by the arrival of tens of thousands of UN peacekeepers, non-governmental agencies and other Lebanese who returned home to help their country rebuild.

“The economy is really good,” Abu Mazloun said. “Unifil and the NGOs employ a lot of locals and they spend a lot of money here and in the villages. People are really happy.”

But part of the secret, according to the elderly tailor, Abu Marwan, is that for once there appears to be a sense of equilibrium along the troubled border that he thinks could lead to stability after decades of watching wars break out.

“Before 2006, people were always afraid of the Israelis,” he said. “I have been hiding in bomb shelters for half my life. But in 2006, the resistance did such a good job, that people have relaxed.”

“Since before 1970, the Israelis would bomb us and we would have to run away. I used to sit for weeks inside a bomb shelter and pray to God, not to kill the Israelis, but just to show them how it feels to have to hide. So God sent us Hassan Nasrallah, who in 2006 taught the Israelis that they couldn’t just attack us without a problem. If they attack, now, they have to hide just like we did. He’s my hero.”

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