Lebanon: Beirut in Crisis


    Broadcasts from Beirut I: Interview with activist and publisher Samah Idriss.


    Photo: Lebanese gunman in Beirut.

Lebanon is currently facing a major political crisis, as armed battles have erupted in multiple districts in Beirut, battles between pro-government forces and the political opposition backed by the Lebanese movement Hezbollah. Currently the Lebanese capital is divided, as opposition forces maintain a hold in West Beirut, having handed control in certain districts to the Lebanese Army, while the western-backed Lebanese government remains in lock down within government buildings.

Today Lebanon’s government has maintained a contested hold on official state power in Lebanon without representation from Hezbollah or other opposition parties for over one year. This week the government announced that Hezbollah’s independent communications network or telephone system operating in Lebanon as illegal, sparking the current crisis. Hezbollah’s independent telephone or communications system is considered to be a critical element to the success of the Lebanese resistance to Israel in successfully halting Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon.

Lebanon’s current crisis revolves around pointed divisions on the future definition for the country, a division involving countless perspectives in Lebanon, however a conflict that pits the pro-U.S. government and a Hezbollah lead opposition which opposes western intervention in the Middle East on opposite sides. Lebanon’s current conflict exists within a broader political crisis in the Middle East in the context of the U.S.-backed “War on Terror”, spanning from Palestine, to Iraq, to Egypt.

Samah Idriss is a co-founder of the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel, a lexicographer, a literary critic who earned a PhD from Columbia University in 1991, and is editor-in-chief of al-Adab, a Lebanese arts and culture magazine based in Beirut. Samah is also deeply involved in Civilian Resistance Campaign in Lebanon that organized between people in Lebanon and internationals to provide direct aid at a grassroots level to people impacts by the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon. Samah Idriss spoke with Tadamon!’s Stefan Christoff concerning the current political crisis in Lebanon.

Stefan Christoff: First can you describe the current situation in Beirut?

Samah Idriss: Now everything is relatively calm. All the offices of the government-backed Future Movement in West Beirut have surrendered and many of the pro-government “fighters”, many who were invited to come from Northern Lebanon, often without even knowing that they were going to fight, have surrendered to the opposition and the opposition has handed these people and offices over to the Lebanese Army.

Now that the forces from the March 14th ‘movement’ have lost this battle, pro-government forces claim that they weren’t preparing for a war, that they aren’t organizing armed militias and that they weren’t instigating the fighting, while claiming that Hezbollah is acting on behalf of Iran and Syria.

It is critical to remember that this current situation started when the Lebanese government, a couple days ago, decided to declare the Hezbollah communications system or independent telephone grid as illegal. This is critical because this communications system was a major reason behind Hezbollah’s victory against Israel in July 2006. Given that the Hezbollah system isn’t wireless it is harder for Israel or the U.S. to crack or decode this communications network. This communication system was key to Hezbollah preventing Israeli forces from knowing the positions and movements of Hezbollah and it’s leadership during the war in 2006.

So this current scenario commenced with an instigation from the western-backed government. Additionally the government wanted to kick-out a person in charge at the international airport in Beirut who is close to Hezbollah, in order to replace them with another person who would not be able to assist Hezbollah to know who travels in and out at the airport.

These two actions from the government, the declaration of Hezbollah’s communication network as illegal and the attempt to oust a Hezbollah sympathetic person at Beirut’s international airport, instigated the attack from the opposition, lead by Hezbollah.

West Beirut is now under the control of the Lebanese Army, after the opposition took over the party offices representing the March 14th movement. Currently it’s not clear if things will develop in other areas in Lebanon such as in the Mountains, this remains unclear.

Stefan Christoff: Now concerning the way that the current situation is being reported in the western press, we are reading a basic depiction that involves armed clashes between pro-government militias and Hezbollah supporters throughout Beirut. Also there is a focus on distilling the current scenario into sectarian terms, breaking down the division as fought between Sunni and Shi’ite forces. Also you highlighted that Hezbollah or opposition forces have handed over certain pro-government offices or Future Movement offices to the Lebanese Army, which is not being widely reported in the western press. Mainstream media in North America is reporting that West Beirut is under Hezbollah’s control. In this light could you offer your critiques towards the mainstream media’s coverage concerning the events in Beirut within the last 48 hours, both western media and media in the Middle East?

Samah Idriss: Media that is allied with the government in Lebanon aims to present the current situation simply as sectarian strife. Equaling coverage that claims the Shi’ite are invading the Sunni West Beirut. First it’s important to highlight that Beirut was never strictly Sunni, while the people who are now fighting for the opposition, many belong to Beirut, live in Beirut, a city that has never been just Sunni but a mixture of all religious sects in Lebanon. This is one critical point.

Clearly there is a strategy from the government and pro-government forces to portray Hezbollah as the outsiders, to try to portray Hezbollah as a force coming to change the nature of Beirut by bringing in Shi’ite elements, Iranian elements, Persian elements, barbarian elements, etc. All oriental stereotypes that mainstream western media and some mainstream Arab media will quickly adopt. Not certain however that this portrayal for Hezbollah could work in the Arab media because Hezbollah is widely respected as the major defender for the Arab cause, for the Palestinian cause.

Across the Middle East the mainstream Sunni populations don’t view Hezbollah or it’s leader Hassan Nasrallah as a sectarian leader or simply a Shi’ite leader. However the mainstream pro-government media in Lebanon attempt to portray Hezbollah as completely a sectarian movement, in tune with the political lines fostered by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, France and the U.S.

Government forces in Lebanon claim they represent a peaceful vision for the country with their common slogan, “I Love Life”, while claiming that Lebanon is being invaded by the violent Hezbollah now in West Beirut.

Stefan Christoff: Now concerning recent events that lead to the current situation, there was a call for a general strike put forward by the General Labor Confederation for May 7th. Clearly there is an economic reality to the current situation in Lebanon, growing poverty rates, little employment opportunities in the country, which presents a larger economic context to recent events. Could you offer a critique within an economic framework in the context of the current situation in Beirut?

Samah Idriss: Unfortunately the opposition isn’t directly connecting the current situation to Lebanon’s economic crisis. A major political defect to the opposition.

Currently Lebanon is experiencing many major economic problems, the minimum wage rests very low and the General Labor Confederation called a strike to demand a rise for the minimum wage in Lebanon. The government conceded just prior to the strike to slightly raise the minimum wage, not meeting the just demand put forward by the national union of workers for fair wages in Lebanon. Still even with the raise to the minimum wage proposed by the government one could not sustain themselves or their family on this very low wage.

Although the opposition, lead-by Hezbollah, is allied with the General Labor Confederation, the opposition has not presented a solid economic critique of the government. Unfortunately Lebanon’s economic reality and it’s impacts economically on people don’t rank very high in the priorities put forward by the opposition. This is a major pitfall from the Lebanese opposition today.

Stefan Christoff: It could be argued that the motivation for the youth to take the streets to participate in the current clashes is directly connected to the lack of opportunities economically or for employment today in Lebanon today. Could you comment on this?

Samah Idriss: Clearly the terrible economic situation plays an important role in the current clashes. However the people who are now fighting for the opposition are organized, it’s not a popular uprising or rebellion in the traditional sense, the opposition is being lead by organized elements who have specific goals and a specific agenda. At the same time there are some unorganized elements who burned things randomly, however they are a minority. Broadly speaking the opposition forces are a political movement that is extremely well organized.

Also it is critical to note that many pro-government forces who fought against the opposition in recent days, were people traveled from extremely impoverished areas like Akkar in Northern Lebanon, lead by the Future Movement to Beirut who was offering money to impoverished people to fight against opposition forces in Beirut. In certain cases people coming from Akkar weren’t even aware prior to arriving in Beirut that they were coming to the capital to fight, thinking that they were coming to Beirut to fill labor positions, these are people who were manipulated by the Future Movement.

Many people from Akkar in this context quickly surrendered to opposition forces in West Beirut, declaring on local T.V. and radio that they weren’t aware that they were being lead by pro-government forces, mainly the Future Movement, to Beirut to fight the opposition. Also some youth who fought for the opposition forces were lead to fight with money, however this is a minority. However it’s important to recognize that the terrible economic situation in Lebanon is leading people to fight in multiple cases.

Unfortunately now people are not speaking about issues facing workers today in Lebanon, the critical economic issues that the General Labor Confederation put forward have been lost in the mainstream discussions surrounding the violence of recent days, while economics played a critical role in creating the current situation.

Stefan Christoff: Let’s focus on the current government in Lebanon. Over one year has passed since Hezbollah representatives quit the government, the opposition has declared the current government as illegitimate. Can you present your perspectives on the current government in Lebanon, lead by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, it’s alliances to the governments of U.S., France, Canada, but also it’s handling on the current crisis in Lebanon.

Samah Idriss: Lebanon’s government today is unconstitutional. A government that isn’t in tune with Lebanon’s constitution in the sense that it the government is suppose to represent all sects and communities in Lebanon. As soon as Hezbollah’s Ministers withdrew from the government it became an illegitimate government. Now the government maintains that it remains constitutional or legitimate as it refused to acknowledge the withdrawal of the Hezbollah ministers, not choosing alternative ministers to represent the Shi’ite community, however clearly it’s an unconstitutional government.

On an international level, obviously this government is allied with the U.S., with France, with Saudi Arabia, with Egypt, viewing itself as part of the U.S. or E.U. political agenda in the Middle East, that they put forward with the empty slogan, “I Love Life”, in Lebanon. Today the government presents itself to the west as fighting a Syrian and Iranian axis that is based on a culture of martyrdom or a cultural of death, as the government claims, while the current government represents western values in Lebanon, values put forward with empty slogans that utilize words like, ‘freedom’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’.

Actually the government also uses language to present Hezbollah as somehow an external force to Lebanon, using similar language that we use in Lebanon to describe Israeli forces. While at the time when a real external threat invaded Lebanon in 2006, the Israeli army, the current government did nothing to resist, contrary to their slogans about ‘sovereignty’, ‘independence’ and ‘freedom’.

Stefan Christoff: Want to discuss the current crisis in Lebanon as related to the war between Lebanon and Israel in 2006. Hassan Nasrallah has made clear the importance of Hezbollah’s independent telephone network to the resistance against Israel’s invasion in 2006, citing the communications network as a critical element to Hezbollah’s resistance strategy. In reading western press reports on the current crisis in Lebanon there are little parallels or connections drawn between the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon and the current crisis. Could you expand on the ways in which the current crisis and the 2006 Israeli invasion are intertwined?

Samah Idriss: Hezbollah’s telecommunication network is an important weapon for the resistance movement in Lebanon, playing a critical role in 2006 war. It a sense the communications system is even more important than Hezbollah’s rockets or weaponry. In 2006 the entire weapons arsenal would have done little without the telecommunications network. Now for the Lebanese government to demand to control this communications network, or for it to be dismantled, is equivalent to demanding that Hezbollah hand-over their arms to the government.

Israel and the U.S. first wanted to disarm Hezbollah through U.N. Resolution 1559 politically, with support from western-backed forces in Lebanon. Once this strategy failed the U.S. and Israel tried to disarm Hezbollah by force in 2006 through an invasion. In a sense it was the U.S. that invaded Lebanon in 2006. This attempt to disarm Hezbollah failed due to the Lebanese resistance. Now again the same forces are attempting to disarm Hezbollah, however through a different strategy, using different titles, this time the focus is on the telecommunications network of Hezbollah in Lebanon a critical element to Hezbollah’s arms.

Given this context it is clear why Hezbollah, as expressed by a press conference given the Hassan Nasrallah this week, was outraged by the government’s decision to attempt to dismantle this telecommunications network, that without a doubt assisted in saving Lebanese lives during the 2006 Israeli attack.

Read an interview with Samah Idriss conducted for Electronic Intifada in 2005.


Merci pour cette importante interview. Extrêmement intéressante, elle m’a éclairé beaucoup de points obscurs dans la situation à Beyrouth et m’a aidée à me faire une idée bien plus correcte.

Comment by nachoua — May 10th, 2008 @ 1:26 AM

i just wanted to comment on some of the points that mr.idriss makes here as well as the general situation and the way that it is being covered by all lebanese and international press.

first of all, no television in lebanon can be referred to as simply “local tv”. unfortunately, it is important to name the channels in question that have broadcasted images of “future movement” fighters from the north. as far as i know, they have only appeared on nbn (amal) and al manar (hizbullah). this act, to me was similar to american television showing images of prisoners of war… it seemed petty and not done in an informative enough way to constitute anything more than provocation.

another point that mr idriss does not mention is that opposition forces have shut down all of future movement’s press/radio/television centres effecting a serious attack on the sanctity of press and freedom of speech. future has not gone back on the waves even as we speak.

indeed this government is corrupt, unrepresentative of the general will of the people, it is undeniably in tune with the american agenda for the region. regardless of whether or not it constitutional, this government has demonstrated that it is power hungry and is more interested in hanging on to power more than anything else. the argument of constitutionality is one that i generally try to avoid as any point of contention between opposition and majority is deemed an attack on the constitution. the specific article is of the constitution is never stated, and when it is, opposing groups can usually quote 2 or 3 passages that contradict it.

while i remain positive that the battles of the past few days might move the status quo, it is now seeming increasingly unlikely. while fatfat made mention of government resignation has been put on the table, and aoun expressed hope to dismantle the tents on the 2 squares, the subsequent march 14 press conference issued a statement refuting any such progress.

it is also dangerous to speak of who instigated what. while government rhetoric is often inflammatory and counter productive, there was yesterday a major shift in hizbullah’s rhetoric. while we were told repeatedly that hizbullah’s weapons will never turn inwards, hassan nasrallah stated that the weapons will only turn inwards to defend the weapons. this needs to be questioned and analyzed.

also questionable is the blurriness between a public uprising and militia warfare. the shift betwen the two stages of the crisis was very ill documented or at least depicted. it was only yesterday that it became clear that it was warfare in the strategic sense, with party headquarters being taken over and handed over to the army.
it cannot accurately be said that economic hardship is at the base of the recent escalation. mr idriss does well to make the distinction between an uprising and organised battles. it was again blurry when the shift from these economic demands turned to demands to withdraw government decisions with regards to the comm network.

regardless of which camp one is sympathetic to, and i consider myself generally in favor of the opposition, i think that it is clear at this point that no one side can be solely declared responsible for escalations. no one faction can be considered fully lebanese or fully unlebanese. hizbullah is indeed backed by Iran and Syria, like the government is backed by a majority of western powers, and very aggressively by the us. these are known points and therefore in my opinion, should be cancelled out as arguments, unless discussed specifically in terms of the form of the support with regards to the specific political instance.

there is a complete lack of honesty within the political camps with themselves. there is absolutely no acceptance of strategic abuses or errors by any camp. no camps are ever held accountable by their followers. this interview reads that way. while it makes accurate points against the government incapacity and abusive hold on power etc… it lacks criticality towards the strategeic shortcomings of the opposition, as well as a close look at the holes within its rhetoric.

there needs to be a government of national unity in lebanon. new electoral law, new governemt, new president based on accurate representation of lebanon’s composition.

we hope to see an end to tit for tat rhetoric, bloody gun battles and street scuffles.
open dialogue without preconditions, as the government is not in a place where it can afford to be overly demanding…. at least not internally.

Comment by haig aivazian — May 10th, 2008 @ 3:27 AM

By the way the picture are amazing .

Comment by Brainoff — March 14th, 2009 @ 4:50 AM

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