May 16, 2008


Iran's tool fights America's stooge: A delicate balance between Christians, Druze, Sunnis and Shias has broken down. Reassembly will be hard (The Economist, 5/15/08)

This division is often defined, for simplicity's sake, as a split between Hizbullah, backed by Syria and Iran in the interest of confronting Israel and blocking American influence, against the Western-backed, democratically elected government of Fuad Siniora, the Sunni prime minister. The reality is more complicated.

Mr Siniora's coalition of Sunni Muslims, right-wing Christian parties, liberals, and the main Druze faction led by Walid Jumblatt, did indeed win 72 of the Lebanese parliament's 128 seats in the spring of 2005, riding on sympathy generated by the assassination of Mr Siniora's patron Rafik Hariri, a billionaire and five-term prime minister. But the election was run under rules drafted during Syrian control, before Mr Hariri's fatal falling-out with the Syrian regime. Many Lebanese Christians, who had been the core of opposition to Syria, felt these rules diluted their influence.

Moreover, the winning coalition, which adopted the name of “March 14th” after the date of a large anti-Syrian rally, secured some districts through an electoral alliance with Hizbullah. The Shia party was rewarded with seats in Mr Siniora's cabinet, but also believed there was tacit agreement to provide political cover for its massive rocket arsenal—perhaps, at some distant point, by incorporating its guerrilla force into the Lebanese army.

This alliance quickly unravelled, as Mr Siniora's Western backers pushed him to contain what they regarded as a terrorist group, and Hizbullah responded by forging a growing opposition coalition. This came to include not only its rival Shia party Amal, but also some pro-Syrian Christian, Sunni and Druze factions that had flourished, many with vigorous armed wings, under Syrian tutelage. Surprisingly, it was also joined by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the Christian party of Michel Aoun, a maverick former general who had led a rising against Syria at the close of the civil war. [...]

Mr Aoun's abrasiveness, and March 14th's unwillingness to give him the presidency, ensured that the FPM remained in opposition. It was widely assumed that with his anti-Syrian credentials and largely pro-Western Christian constituency, the general would avoid Hizbullah, yet the two parties made an alliance in February 2006. Mr Aoun lost some Christian support over this, but then came the war with Israel.

Most Christians blamed Hizbullah for the fighting. Yet many also credited the FPM, which mobilised aid for thousands of Shias displaced by the war, with healing a historic rift between the traditionally dominant but dwindling Christians and the long-disenfranchised but now formidable Shias. In Hizbullah's view, the alliance with Mr Aoun allowed it to clothe its Iranian-tinted Islamist militancy in Lebanese nationalist colours.

Hizbullah emerged from the war with its prestige enhanced, and speedily boosted it further with a big and efficient Iranian-financed reconstruction programme. By contrast, Mr Siniora's government, reduced during the war to issuing vain pleas to its Western friends to fend off the Israeli onslaught, looked vulnerable.

...used to have a delicate balance of Afrikaans, whites, coloreds, and blacks until it broke down...

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 16, 2008 7:18 AM

I don't think you've ever told us what you believe the makeup of Lebanon is, re Shia, Sunni,various Christians, aside from asserting some sort of massive majority (now inflated to black/white in S.Africa proportions apparently) for the Shia. Care to take a stab?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 16, 2008 8:00 AM

The reason the Sunni and Christians won't allow a census is because the Shi'a likely have a majority as a percent of the entire country, though they're only a prohibitive majority in the South. It's possible, though unlikely, that their numbers are as underestimated as in pre-election Iraq.

Posted by: oj at May 16, 2008 9:33 AM

And just how do you know that is the reason the Sunni and Christians won't allow a census? Perhaps they're afraid that Hezbollah will simple lie about how many Shi'a there are - and threaten to shoot anyone who disagrees.

Posted by: Brandon at May 16, 2008 11:30 AM

That's not how censuses are conducted or NH would have 50 House seats.

Posted by: oj at May 16, 2008 2:30 PM

New Hampshire isn't a no-go zone for the Census Bureau; and doesn't have Iranian rockets pointed at Washington.

Posted by: Brandon at May 16, 2008 2:51 PM

Ah, you've stumbled into a revealing threshold error. Ask yourself why there is no Lebanese Census Bureau and you'll begin to comprehend.

[Note too that you've biffed the analogy--if NH only got one senator, no reps and no Hampshireman could be president it would indeed be a no go zone for the federals and missiles would point at the oppressors. But we're Americans, we reserve rights to ourselves that we'd deny the other.]

Posted by: oj at May 16, 2008 5:55 PM

There is a Lebanese Census Bureau. It's called the Central Administration for Statistics.

Posted by: Brandon at May 16, 2008 7:55 PM

The last census?

Posted by: oj at May 16, 2008 8:34 PM

I don't know. I can't read Arabic. But I don't dispute that they don't do regular censuses (censii?). I'm just not convinced that the reason is that the Sunni and Christians want to oppress the Shi'a. Nor am I convinced that the Shi'a are a majority.

Posted by: Brandon at May 16, 2008 11:07 PM

Not regular?

Posted by: oj at May 17, 2008 6:30 AM

The Shi'a may be a majority - however, if we were to kill Assad (as OJ, among many others, always urges), Hezbollah would suddenly become isolated. And perhaps desperate.

Now that may not be a bad thing, with them caught between the Israelis in the South and the Sunni/Christian/Druze to the North. Clean out the Bekaa Valley once and for all. It is the Tora Bora of the Middle East, after all.

But such a battle would be terrible for the Shi'a overall. Their best bet is to get sovereignty in the South while they can. Syria can't last forever, and less if McCain is elected.

Posted by: ratbert at May 17, 2008 5:46 PM

What would they have to be desperate about? They've established they're the alpha dog in The Lebanon. They can just take a state of their own.

Posted by: oj at May 17, 2008 6:04 PM