Tunisia’s Lesson for Lebanon
Eyad Abu Shakra/Asharq Al Awsat
Thursday, 31 Oct, 2014
Relations between Tunisia and Lebanon have a long history, and the connections between them do not stop with the Greek story of Elissa (Dido), daughter of the king of Tyre, who later became the founder and queen of Carthage, the nucleus of today’s Tunisia.
Throughout history there have been several similarities between Lebanon and Tunisia: Both have been blessed with great natural beauty and a lovely climate, both have been keen to interact with the outside world, and both have been proud of their strong belief in civilian rule. The latter, though, did not prevent them occasionally from succumbing to excessive veneration of “historic leaders” (cults of personality), or tolerating a police state masquerading as a civil government.
Here the similarities end, since Tunisia has succeeded more than any of the other “Arab Spring” countries in achieving a smooth and positive political transition, while Lebanon has dismally failed the test of coping with the repercussions of that “Arab Spring,” although its relationship with it was no more than that of geographical proximity.
The Tunisian people have passed the test of holding a democratic election with flying colors. During the polls, the parties of both the president and speaker of parliament were soundly defeated, and the parliamentary bloc of the largest party and main representative of political Islam was badly wounded. Meanwhile, a liberal civilian party won the biggest number of seats, and a committed but poorly funded leftist party came fourth. In this election, the Islamists were not in a hurry to impose their hegemony, nor were their opponents in a rush to get rid of them. Indeed, Tunisia lived relatively peacefully under a “cohabitation” arrangement that was barely shaken by the clashes with extremists in the Chaambi Mountains on the Algerian border, nor by the assassinations of leftist leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.
Alas, one finds Lebanon on the other side of the spectrum. Not only has it been without a president for several months, it also remains without a real government, without national consensus, or esprit de corps in its army and security forces. Lebanon is actually a country without a roof and walls. Its politicians and officials have no sense of responsibility, and those entrusted with its affairs do not understand what duty means. Last but not least, its citizens do not share the same allegiance, sense of belonging, or common fate. Given all this, it is not surprising that despite serving in the same cabinet, each minister behaves as an individual, totally free of any sense of collective government responsibility.
The Syrian revolt against Bashar Al-Assad has truly been an important test for various regional and international players, in addition to the Assad regime itself. As far as Lebanon is concerned, Hezbollah admitted openly that it was engaged in the fighting in Syria on the side of the regime. Other sources also claim that several Sunni groups have joined the fighting against the regime and the Shi’ite militia backing it under orders from Iran. Later on, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, suggested to his adversaries within Lebanon that they should fight against his party inside Syria rather than bring the confrontation into Lebanon.
This is a clear sign that Hezbollah was always well aware of the consequences of its active military involvement in the Syrian war, specifically with regards to domestic Lebanese politics. The former Hezbollah-dominated Lebanese government headed by Najib Mikati was also cautious about these consequences, which led it to adopt—vocally—a policy of staying out of the Syrian conflict.
In the meantime, the Lebanese military establishment, composed of the army and security apparatuses, remain an honest reflection of the confessional and political divisions of Lebanese society, at least at the highest ranks. No senior commander is appointed without the blessing of his confessional leader. Furthermore, this military establishment was actually rebuilt during the period of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon between 1990 and 2005. As a reminder, it is worth mentioning here that following the Taif Agreement of 1989, all Lebanese militias agreed to disband and hand over their arsenals to the government, except Hezbollah—under the pretext that it was fighting against the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. The disarmed militias welcomed this exception in appreciation of Hezbollah’s sacrifices.
Israel eventually withdrew its occupying forced in 2000, and the UN agreed a “blue line” as the border line between Israel and Lebanon. But Hezbollah still refused to disarm, claiming that the blue line ignores the fact that the Shebaa Farms and Kfarchouba Heights (Sunni areas in Southeast Lebanon) were “Lebanese territories,” and thus the withdrawal was incomplete.
Between 1998 and 2005, Lebanon witnessed a bitter political feud between the then-president Emile Lahoud, a former army chief and a staunch ally of Damascus, and ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri. This feud ended with the assassination of Hariri, for which Damascus-connected operatives were initially accused, before the Special International Tribunal for Lebanon formally accused five members of Hezbollah. The latter reacted strongly, by refusing to hand over the five suspects, and also refused to hand a sixth suspect over to a Lebanese court after being accused of the attempted assassination of cabinet minister Boutros Harb.
The rapid growth of Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon culminated in the use of its military might against its fellow Lebanese in 2008, as it swept through predominantly Sunni Beirut and tried to attack the Druze mountainous heartlands. Such action provoked a bitter sectarian counter-reaction in Sunni areas, including the cities of Tripoli and Sidon, the capitals of northern and southern Lebanon respectively, and the town of Arsal in the northern Beqaa, in northeast Lebanon.
So when the Syrian revolt began, the Lebanese army was put to a critical test. In the short run, and on the face of it, it seems to have succeeded. However, the reality may be different. Moderate Sunni leaders have all rushed to declare their support for the army’s actions against Sunni jihadists, but even they know only too well that their popular bases may not be in agreement. It is true the Sunni masses dislike the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Al-Nusra Front, but they dislike the army leadership’s bias—and what they view as its subservience to Hezbollah—even more. The other day two Lebanese commentators appeared on a pan-Arab TV Channel, one Christian and the other Shi’ite. Both were very frank and brave, saying what Sunni politicians are trying to avoid speaking of. The gist of their argument was that Lebanon cannot do without the army, and that it is the only guarantor of the country’s sovereignty, but such an army must be an army for all Lebanese, and free of all factional and sectarian influence. It must not stop suspects from a certain sect because they may be carrying rifles while turning a blind eye to convoys of armed men from another sect transporting rockets and heavy weapons. It must not raid neighborhoods, towns and villages of one community in order to arrest suspects, when is not allowed to venture even close to the security zones of other groups harboring and protecting other suspects. These are stark facts, far more important than sweet-talk and insincere pledges.