Lebanon remains tense after kidnappings, hopes to avoid Syrian chaos spillover

Lebanon’s prime minister Najib Mikati yesterday appeared to call for something like a unity government, with further signs that the Syrian civil war next door could cause chaos in neighboring Lebanon.

The situation in Beruit remains tense— the latest episode involved the kidnapping Wednesday of over two dozen Syrians (and a Turkish and Saudi national) by the Meqdad clan (a Shi’a group from the Bekaa Valley, a Shi’a region in eastern Lebanon near Syria) in retaliation for the abduction of one of its kinsman in Damascus.  Although the isolated kidnappings involve just a handful of Syrians, the incident has left Lebanon very much on guard.

The clan claimed that the kidnapped victims were members of the Free Syrian Army, the main opposition group to Syrian president Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the ongoing civil war in Syria, a country that’s had an outsized influence on Lebanon for the past three decades.

The clan has released several hostages and has announced that it will not abduct any further victims, but the move was nonetheless troubling for a country that stands more to lose from the escalation of the Syrian civil war than any other country in the Middle East.  It caused Air France and other airlines to divert flights from Beirut to other cities after reports of a blockage of the road from the airport to Beirut, and it’s been calamitous enough for Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait to urge their nationals to leave Lebanon.

Another group, the al-Mukhtar al-Thufki brigade, announced that it abducted 10 Free Syrian Army members in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, and it will furthermore target anyone that is a Free Syrian Army supporter.

Lebanon, which endured a grueling sectarian civil war from the late 1970s through the entire 1980s, has done an admirable job of avoiding spillover from the Syrian chaos for the past year and a half — aside from some unrest in the largely Sunni city of Tripoli on Lebanon’s north coast earlier this year in May, Lebanon has avoided much of the bloodshed and chaos that has enveloped Syria in the past 18 months and Lebanon, despite current tensions, remains far from the hell of its civil war.

It remains to be seen if Mikati can form a new unity government to stand in the face of growing shockwaves from the Syrian war, given that Lebanon’s two main political blocs are defined on the basis of their pro-Syria and anti-Syria stances.  A new general election in Lebanon is due in 2013.

Multi-volume books could be written that barely begin to reveal the intricacies of Lebanese politics — it’s safe to say that the confessional system, whereby each of Lebanon’s 18 religious groups are allocated power, is complex.  Furthermore, the Syria axis defines Lebanese politics even more than the traditional left-right axis. 

Under Lebanon’s unique system, its president is typically a Maronite Christian, its prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament, a Shi’a Muslim.  Since Lebanon’s bloody civil war in the 1980s, the ratio of seats in the Lebanese parliament are allocated on a 50:50 basis between Christians and Muslims.

Christian and Muslim aren’t monolithic — for years, Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims dominated Lebanon’s political elite, to the exclusion of the Shi’a Muslims and Greek Orthodox.  Furthermore, each religion has its own parties and often competing rivals.  Most followers of the Druze religion (think of it as a sort of mystical, exotic offshoot of mainstream Islam) support the Progressive Socialist Party (الحزب التقدمي الاشتراكي‎) of longtime Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.  Hezbollah (حزب الله‎) is the most infamous Shi’a group in Lebanon, but it competes against Amal (حركة أمل‎) for Shi’a voters in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley — Shi’a remains the fastest growing sect of voters in the country.

Maronites support any number of groups, many of which correspond to militias from the bloody civil war of the 1980s and map to individual personalities:

  • the Kataeb Party (or Phalange, حزب الكتائب اللبنانية) is led by Amine Gemayel (former president from 1982 to 1988 and brother of the former, assassinated president Bachir Gemayel),
  • the National Liberal Party (حزب الوطنيين الأحرار‎) is led by Dory Chamoun, son of a former Lebanese president in the 1950s,
  • the Lebanese Forces (القوات اللبنانية‎) is led by Samir Geagea, and
  • the Free Patriotic Movement (التيار الوطني الحر‎) of Michel Aoun, a former prime minister from 1988 to 1990.
And so on.

Syria’s government placed troops in Lebanon during the civil war and continued to hold a special role in directing the policy of Lebanon’s government well after the end of hostilities.  In February 2005, prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated with (it was largely suspected) at minimum, Syrian permission.  The subsequent “Cedar Revolution” resulted in the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, although Assad’s regime continued to play a role in Lebanese politics up through the beginning of Syria’s own civil war last year.

Today, the two major blocs of Lebanese politics derive from 2005: the pro-Syrian “March 8” bloc, and the anti-Syrian “March 14” bloc, each named for the day of a respective demonstration for and against Syria.

Generally speaking, most Maronite parties support the March 14 bloc, although Aoun supports the March 8 bloc, as do most Greek Orthodox politicians.  All Shi’a groups support the March 8 bloc, but Sunni groups, however, are split.

Following the 2009 legislative elections, the March 14 bloc governed Lebanon under prime minister Saad Hariri (the son of the prime minister assassinated in 2005); in 2011, Druze leader Jumblatt switched his support to the March 8 bloc, which has governed Lebanon under Mikati ever since.

Both blocs, however, have agreed that it is imperative that Lebanon not be dragged too deeply into the Syrian civil war in support of either Assad or the anti-Assad rebels.

Photo credit to Kevin Lees — photo of Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque and St. George Maronite Cathedral, which sit side by side in downtown Beirut at Martyrs’ Square in Beirut, May 2011. 

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