Following events in Lebanon from the United States, as I have done during the past week, leaves one with the impression that most media in the U.S. are eager to see a resumption of the devastating and wasteful civil war that ravaged Lebanon for 15 years until 1990. Virtually every story on Lebanon is framed in the lens of the possible return to sectarian civil strife as a result of the spillover of the Syrian conflict.
The reality seems rather different to me, despite the many weaknesses and dysfunctional aspects of Lebanese governance. The international press corps and many in the political classes should wise up and see the country as something more than a bomb waiting to explode repeatedly.
The political tensions and a handful of local clashes following the assassination last Friday of Internal Security Forces Intelligence Bureau head Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan reflected a tragic but rather routine sequence of sentiments and events, in this country where political assassinations have occurred regularly for half a century.
Millions of Lebanese instantly feared a recurrence of the serial political killings that followed the assassination of the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in early 2005. Some took to the streets to express themselves in the time-tested manner of burning tires and blocking a few streets.
At the Hasan funeral Sunday, the weaknesses and amateurism of some Lebanese politicians surfaced. Understandably angry members of the March 14 coalition in opposition fired up the crowd by demanding the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, normally a rational man who shouldered the responsibility of power with great dignity and resolve in the difficult years following the Hariri assassination, succumbed to a moment of reckless silliness when he said Sunday that Mikati’s Cabinet was a “government of assassination,” given the numerous assassinations that occurred during the years when March 14 and Siniora ran the government.
His and other fiery statements prompted a small crowd of excited youth to try and storm the government headquarters in central Beirut, and they were quickly dispersed by some forceful work by the internal security forces.
After this incident, senior March 14 leaders, including former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, called for calm, insisting that their desire to topple the government should be achieved through peaceful and democratic means. So they are now boycotting all contacts with the government, which is most unimpressive.
While most media coverage of Lebanon that I have seen in the U.S. tends to fall into narrative and hysterical categories that describe clashes and see them in the context of possibly returning to civil war, my sense is that the historian’s perspective of identifying new trends and political factors is much more useful today to grasp what is going on in Lebanon.
In this context, the bottom line from the last week’s events suggests to me that the politicians’ irresponsible emotionalism and the public’s instant worries are both routine developments that have recurred in Lebanon for many decades, unfortunately. Top-level political assassinations and instant street clashes that would shatter most other countries are taken in stride by most Lebanese, who stay home for 36 hours and then resume their normal life routines.
There will not be a return to civil war because the most important new development in Lebanon in recent years – since February 2005 to be exact – is a more determined attitude and enhanced capabilities on the part of the central government in the face of the stresses that often threaten to tear Lebanese society apart. The principal political actors in Lebanon have had numerous opportunities to resume serious fighting in recent years, and every time have pulled back from the brink in order to refrain from the path of civil war. In the past three years, the armed forces and internal security have acted much more forcefully and quickly to stop local clashes from growing or spreading, and the National Dialogue committee presents an opportunity for all parties to seek a route toward stable and sensible governance.
The presidency of Michel Sleiman also offers a more activist touch, while the forensic investigative capabilities of the Internal Security Forces continue to improve, as seen by the successful interception of the alleged plan by former Minister Michel Samaha to bring explosives from Syria to destabilize Lebanon, and the detection of Israeli espionage rings. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon that has investigated and will try those accused of killing Rafik Hariri is another new element in the young drive to stop the legacy of political violence.
These and other factors probably explain why Hasan was killed by some party that does not want Lebanon to achieve a strong indigenous capability to investigate and put a stop to political crimes. Whether that party is in Syria, Lebanon, Israel or elsewhere remains to be seen.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @RamiKhouri.