Posted by: sean | May 9, 2008

Legitimacy and Mercutio in Lebanon

I never thought I’d say this, but there was part of Samir Geagea’s speech this afternoon that I agree with. He said that the use of Hezbollah’s weapons has delegitimized their very existence. I tend to agree with this idea, because Hezbollah has decided to use its weapons in an internal dispute between Lebanese actors. (Here, it’s important to remember that the myth that Hezbollah has never been part of inter-Lebanese fighting fails to include when Amal and Hezbollah fought each the during the civil war.) What has happened is that the March 14 government made a decision that Hezbollah disagreed with, and in reaction to this, they took up arms and occupied half of Beirut. This means that the weapons whose sole purpose is supposed to deter Israeli aggression and defend Lebanon has been used as a blunt political tool to try to force the government to resign, or at the very least, send it a far-from-subtle message. 

The line being taken by the opposition now (at least as far as the talking heads of al-Manar are concerned) is that Hezbollah has helped the state put down militias (namely Mustaqbal, or the Future movement). This position fails to take into consideration, for example, the fact that there are still armed militia members of Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party walking around West Beirut.

Either armed militias are illegal or they aren’t. What’s happened is that the Army seems to have passively taken the side of Hezbollah, which means that their legitimacy will be decreased or destroyed in the eyes of other Lebanese communities, especially the Sunnis in Saida and Tripoli. It has also sent the message that the most effective political tool is military force. I imagine, then, that the Sunnis in Saida and Tripoli, the pro-government Christians and the Druze loyal to Walid Jumblatt have likely decided that they can no longer count on the Army to be an impartial arbiter for the state. This will surely lead to increased militia training and arming. It wouldn’t surprise me if the lesson that the Lebanese Forces and the PSP have taken from the defeat of Mustaqbal (probably the weakest of the pro-government parties/militias, if one of the nastier ones on a local neighborhood level) is that they should be prepared for more of the same in the not-so-distant future.

So where does this leave us? Despite rumors earlier today, it doesn’t look like Saniora, or anyone else, will resign from the government. So what? There’s still no president, and the fundamental dysfunction of the Lebanese state has only been highlighted, not solved. If this all ends with Hezbollah and its allied militias pulling back to their territory in the next day or so, leaving a humiliating message for the other parties and their militias, we’ll be back to where we started. Back to where we started, except a big part of the population will have lost faith in the idea that Hezbollah and its allies can be dealt with within the norms of a democratic system.

Since there is no way that any of these groups can compete with Hezbollah’s military forces, look for them to embrace proxies. This might include the Sunnis accepting al-Qaeda militants and other groups hoping for more Israeli intervention. I’m sure that after the disaster that was the war in 2006, the Israeli establishment wouldn’t mind taking advantage of the situation for  rematch. In any case, what this situation hasn’t done is foster an atmosphere where either side feels like it can compromise. If anything, this whole situation has pushed March 14 further into its corner and inflated the arrogance and confidence of Hezbollah and its allies in the country and abroad. Neither of which bodes well for peace or stability in Lebanon.

Amin Gemayel, whom I can’t stand, called Hezbollah’s victory a Pyrrhic one (actually, he said it in French, the snooty bastard). I tend to think that, on a national level and in the long term, he’s probably right. In any case, it’s enough to turn some Lebanese into bitter Mercutios.



  1. “they took up arms and occupied half of Beirut. This means that the weapons whose sole purpose is supposed to deter Israeli aggression and defend Lebanon has been used as a blunt political tool to try to force the government to resign”

    I feel compelled to say this again (at risk of being seen as defending Hezbollah, which I don’t):
    The arms that were taken up to ‘occupy’ West Beirut are not the same arms as those that are ‘supposed to deter Israeli aggression’. The arms that are used are the arms that are widespread among all Lebanese, the same arms as Future, Amal, SSNP, and PSP fighters were using (and, I am sure, are the same as all the Christian factions would be fighting with, should they get involved).

    Why do I find it important to make this distinction? Because, like you say, either armed militias are illegal or they aren’t. And if they are, then the fact that the opposition parties (led by Hezbollah) ‘overran’ the others, does not make them any more illegal than the other ones who were fighting. Or somehow morally responsible for the idea that “the most effective political tool is military force.” This country is governed by ‘democratically’ elected warlords, remember?

  2. Are you serious? Just what exactly is the difference between those two sets of weapons? Are the M16s for use against the Israelis and the Kalashnikovs for use against Lebanese? Are you making a physical distinction? A legal one? Do arms magically become legitimate when they touch the hands of Hezbollah or Amal or SSNP militiamen?

    And that’s the whole point: Hezbollah has put itself at the exact same level as Mustaqbal thugs, so neither is “more illegal” than the other; the actions of Hezbollah over the last few days have shown that the “Muqawama” is just another militia with all the legitimacy that implies.

    But that’s not the spin that Hezbollah has put on it. According to them, Ras Beirutis are thanking Hezbollah for liberating them: “Sunni forces in Beirut contacted al-Manar TV to express relief that their city has become free of mercenaries.”

    Oh that’s great, Hezbollah is a force for law and order, and I’m sure the residents of Ras Beirut are infinitely grateful for their magnanimous aid.

    And you put scare quotes around “occupy,” well what exactly would you call it when one group takes control of a part of the city that they didn’t control before with the use of RPGs and automatic weapons? What would you call it if the LF or Kataeb were to militarily seize Harat Hreik or Nabatiya?

  3. Nicolien,

    “The arms that were taken up to ‘occupy’ West Beirut are not the same arms as those that are ‘supposed to deter Israeli aggression’.”
    This statement is completely naive and sorry even stupid. It doesn’t matter if Hezbollah didn’t use the physical weapons that he used with Israel…it’s great he didn’t use missiles. By venturing into using his organized militias and taking over Beirut, he by effect has ‘politically’ legitimized the use of his weapons in internal wars. It doesn’t matter what he used, but everyone got the message. Hezbollah by this have stated that they are the biggest military power in Lebanon and would use it to gain power or anything else. Where does this leave us? If Hezbollah, Berri and SSNP have the right to use their weapons against others…then you shouldn’t blame the others from now on if they started training…should you now?
    The move of Hezbollah has in effect changed the whole game making it possible to use force in settling political disagreements. I don’t know if you understand the gravity of this precedent on the post Taef state!! While Mustaqbal fought back, it seemed that they lack the organization of the oposition…but even if they had weapons this doesn’t on the other hand, explain hezbollah’s move, at the contrary it gives the government more reasons to build its militias.

  4. I don’t think Hezbollah can’t be ‘the resistance’ simply because they are also ‘a militia’ (use of scare quotes to indicate use of contested language). Did you really think they were in any way considered legitimate? They just hadn’t gotten to the point where they were seriously contested, like they were now, despite all the beautiful rhetoric on al Manar.

    My whole point about making a distinction in the weapons is indeed a physical, and a political one. Meaning: March 14 has been saying that Hezbollah’s weapons are a problem. Knowing that almost every Lebanese family, and definitely every Lebanese party, has ‘light weapons’ such as AK 47s, M16s and RPGs available, including the March 14 people, I cannot but assume that these are not part of the problem. Otherwise, we should talk about disarming everyone, right? “The problem of Hezbollah’s weapons” then means “those weapons they have that we don’t”. Or are we applying dubble standards?

  5. I’ve never once said that any militias should be armed. Of course PSP and Future and LF should also be disarmed, but it’s important not to make an equivalence between the paltry small arms that Future has and the weapons that Hezbollah has. The latter are able to provoke war with Israel; the former are not.

    And as for not using the weapons of “the resistance” against the Lebanese, tell that to Baisour, which is currently being shelled by Hezbollah.

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