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Mordechai Kedar: The Syrian Crisis Spills Over into Lebanon

A Palestinian woman kisses a poster of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah

Photo Credit: Ahmad Khateib/Flash 90

In the current round of street battles in Tripoli, RPG launchers and machine guns have been used, in addition to personal weapons. Snipers paralyzed the traffic in the streets in the north of the city, and the main route that leads northward to Syria was blocked. The Lebanese army was streaming armored personnel carriers and soldiers into the area, but the Sunni residents of Tripoli fear that the army, like the other branches of the regime, was acting in accordance with the dictates that come down from Damascus. The arrest of a group of Sunnis is perceived as crossing a red line, because the Sunni community is in a very precarious position, since the Shi’ite Hizbollah has become the strongest organization in Lebanon, stronger than even the official army of the state.

By Monday evening the skirmishes had resulted in eight fatalities and about fifty wounded. In the quieter parts of the city, the Sunnis organized a demonstration in support of Al-Mawlawi and his friends who had been arrested. They burned tires, blocked streets and set up protest tents,consistent with the tradition of the “Arab Spring”. The government, headed by Najib al-Mikati and President Michel Suleiman are exerting great effort to calm the situation without causing more fatalities among the population, because Tripoli of today resembles a barrel of gunpowder waiting to explode — and that might ignite all of Lebanon.

The Writing on the Wall

The fragile situation in Lebanon is no surprise, and anyone who understands the internal situation of this country knows that it is living on borrowed time. The state comprises five groups: Christians, Druze, Alawites and Muslims, who are divided into Shi’ites and Sunnis. The constitution, which is supposed to have organized the division of powers between the various groups was written by the French, who established Lebanon as a state for the Christians, principally the Catholic Maronite tribe. Lebanon is a “human experiment”, in which five Middle Eastern groups of humanity were gathered together, a constitution that was contrary to their culture was engineered for them, and it was hoped that the experiment would work. And indeed the arrangement worked for some years, with internal battles every few years, but the demography was stronger than all of the good intentions of the French: Instead of a state for the Maronites, Lebanon became a state for the Shi’ites.

The demographic story is simple: for hundreds of years, even while feudalism still dominated Lebanon, the Shi’ites were marginalized – socially, economically and politically. Because they were generally uneducated, they worked in vocations that were considered lowly, while the Christian elite formed the center of society, the economy and therefore also the political arena. And as in all other places in the world, where the groups that are marginalized have many children, and the elite sectors have fewer, the Shi’ites of Lebanon – who also engage in polygamy, marry at a young age and prohibit “family planning” – fulfilled the biblical passage “They were exceedingly fruitful and the Earth was filled with them.” The Christians on the other hand, froze their demographic growth because of monogamy, marrying – if at all – later in life, and “family planning.”

Because of their European education with the French touch, Christians tended to emigrate, while the Shi’ites, whose educational level is traditionally lower, tended to remain in the land of their birth while developing extensive contacts with Shiite concentrations of southern Iraq and Iran. Lebanon became the first country after the Islamic revolution of 1980 in Iran that the “exporting of the revolution” was implemented – propagandists came from Iraq and Iran to preach to those Shi’ites who had strayed from religion and adopted a secular way of life. Funds poured in to build schools and religious community centers and to support needy families, but the most important things were weapons and military training. These imbued in the Shi’ites witha sense of “Yes, we can!” – that the period of oppression was over for good, and that the future belonged to them. In their view, their militia Hizbollah (“Party of Allah”) emerged as the winner of the long conflicts with Israel, and their jihad justified leaving Hizbollah in possession of their weapons, despite the fact that all of the other Lebanese militias were disbanded after the Ta’if Accord of 1989. Today the Shi’ites use their military success as leverage in the political arena, where they have become the strongest body in Lebanon.

About the Author: Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan U.) Served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. A lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan U., he is also an expert on Israeli Arabs.


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