Barely had the crisis sparked by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri’s sudden announcement of his resignation from Riyadh subsided than tensions flared again, this time between the Amal Movement led by Nabih Berri and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) founded by Michel Aoun and now led by Aoun’s son-in-law and current Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
The tensions reached a pitch that Lebanon has not experienced for years. Amal members and supporters staged angry demonstrations in various parts of the country, some breaking into violence and including gunfire and arson. The crisis peaked a week ago when a gang of Amal supporters stormed into the predominantly Christian district of Hadath.
The flare-up was sparked by the broadcast of a leaked video in which Bassil in a meeting with supporters referred to Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament Nabih Berri as a “thug.” He accused Berri of threatening to “break the head” of anyone who took part in the Lebanese Diaspora Conference organised by the Foreign Ministry in Abidjan.
Bassil said this was the behaviour of a “thug” and not a speaker of parliament. The leaked remarks infuriated Amal supporters, whose angry demonstrations threatened to rekindle sectarian strife.
The incident is an extension of another crisis that erupted over a decree signed by the Lebanese President Michel Aoun granting priority in promotion to a group of officers who graduated from the country’s Military Academy in 1994. The officers are collectively known as the “class of Aoun.”
The story dates back to the late 1980s when the Academy, under the control of Aoun’s military government, volunteered the officers who had enrolled in 1989 and 1990 to serve in the army then under the command of Aoun.
When Aoun went into exile in France in October 1990 after being ousted from the Baabda Presidential Palace by the Syrian army that helped reinstate the command of General Émile Lahoud, the officers were not officially discharged. However, they were unable to complete their education in the Academy even though they continued to draw their salaries.
In January 1993 and in accordance with an initiative by Lahoud to reunite the ranks of the Lebanese army, the so-called “Aoun officers” were reincorporated into the army and were readmitted to the Military Academy. There were 210 such officers in all, 190 of the “first category” (signifying Christians in the Lebanese military lexicon), and 15 of the “second category” (signifying Muslims).
The “Aoun class” graduated in April 1994 after about 14 months of study, or fewer than two academic years of 11 months long. The next class graduated in August 1995, meaning that the graduates of the “Aoun class” automatically had six months’ seniority.
According to sources opposed to the decree granting priority to the April 1994 graduating class, this will stir up discontent in the military establishment because 346 officers will likely feel offended if some of their colleagues enjoy a seniority they do not merit but that will entitle them to be promoted from colonel to brigadier-general after only two years instead of the usual four.
Because of the prevalence of Christians in the “Aoun class,” opponents of the decree argue that it will throw the denominational structure of the army into disequilibrium. There will be hundreds of Christian brigadier-generals, they say, compared to relatively few Muslims.
Sources close to Berri were surprised when Al-Hariri (a Sunni Muslim) signed the decree. Informed sources said that Hizbullah, which supported Berri’s position, opposed it but did not step in to resolve the dispute. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt also supported Berri.
What angered Berri most was the fact that the decree was signed by the president (a Maronite Christian) and the prime minister (a Sunni Muslim), but not by the finance minister, the highest representative of the Lebanese Shia in the executive branch of government whose signature is normally required to ratify executive decrees.
The dispute over the decree then escalated into bitter recriminations and mudslinging between the Aoun faction and the Amal Movement, and these impacted on the preparations for the Lebanese Diaspora Conference supervised by Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law and the current head of the FPM.
Bassil feared that the conference would be under-attended by Shia Lebanese who make up the majority of the Lebanese communities in Africa. This helps explain his offensive remarks about Berri, whom Bassil in the leaked video had accused of attempting to intimidate people wishing to attend. The fact that Bassil acknowledged his remarks after the leak and refused to apologise stoked the anger of Berri and Amal supporters.
Within hours of the video being leaked, Amal supporters took to the streets. Some youths set tyres alight in front of FPM offices, and at one point a gang of young Amal supporters charged into the district of Hadath located on the southern outskirts of Beirut.
Dozens of youths in cars and on motorbikes then raced through the predominantly Christian neighbourhood raising Amal flags and firing guns into the air. In response, dozens of young men from the predominantly Christian area raced into the streets, some carrying guns, according to Lebanese news sites. The army quickly intervened, forestalling an outbreak of violence and restoring calm.
It was only when some FPM members threatened to resort to counter-demonstrations that Hizbullah stepped in. An ally of both sides, it issued stern criticisms of Bassil’s remarks and brought FPM and Amal representatives together in a meeting in Hadath. The two sides then agreed to put the incident behind them and to abide by the historic Mar Mikhail Accord reached between the FPM and Hizbullah in February 2006.
Hizbullah also engineered a telephone call between Aoun and Berri, using Israeli threats against Lebanese oil and gas fields as a pretext.
While Bassil’s remarks concerning Berri were sharply criticised by most Lebanese political circles, the behaviour of the Amal supporters provoked harsh condemnation even by Sunni Muslims. The Sunnis were not party to the dispute, but they live together with Shia Muslims in many neighbourhoods of Beirut that sustained the brunt of the crisis and revived memories of the Lebanese Civil War in which Aoun and the Amal Movement were major players.
The incident also threw into relief the weakness of the Lebanese state and the fact that the Shia (Hizbullah and the Amal Movement) hold a virtual monopoly on militia activities, putting the Lebanese army in an awkward position.
It also focused attention on the fraught relationship between Aoun and Berri. Both Amal and the FPM are allies of Hizbullah, but they are not mutual allies. The tenor of their relationship was epitomised by the refusal of the Berri faction to vote for Aoun in the recent presidential elections in Lebanon, in contrast to most other major political forces in the country.
Perhaps the crucial question in the aftermath of the crisis is why Hizbullah took so long to intervene. Why did it allow things to reach such a dangerous pitch? What would have happened if matters had reached a point at which Hizbullah was forced to choose between its two allies, Amal, the fellow Shia movement, or Aoun, the Maronite friend?
Most people might think the answer to that question is a foregone conclusion – Amal. But those familiar with the subtleties of Lebanese politics know that Hizbullah would never put itself in a position where it had to answer such a question. Aoun controls the largest Christian bloc in parliament and the second-largest parliamentary bloc after the Future Movement.
To Hizbullah, he is a strategic ally who offers huge Christian cover without which the Hizbullah-led coalition would become a purely Shia grouping without national legitimacy and without a sufficiently large parliamentary bloc. Without Aoun, Hizbullah would lose the virtual hegemony it has attained in the political sphere, especially after it succeeded in leveraging Aoun into the presidency.
At the same time, Hizbullah cannot afford to abandon Berri, its partner in its domination of the Shia community and in control on the ground through the Amal militias, especially in towns and urban districts inhabited by Shia and Sunni Muslims.
Hizbullah would also risk losing influence through Amal’s control of the government posts reserved for the Shia. Amal also offers a semi-secular facade and the key to some Arab and international relations that would otherwise be unavailable to Hizbullah.
The reason Hizbullah allowed the tensions to reach the point they did has to do with the Party’s tactics in handling Amal and the FPM and the nature of the two allies themselves.
Although Hizbullah is the dominant political group in Lebanon, it tends to remain aloof from meddling in details and to let Lebanese politicians squabble among themselves over political posts and gains, as though it could not be bothered with such petty matters and their consequences for the Lebanese people.
This approach may have brought few immediate gains for the party, but it has allowed it to increase at a slow but steady pace.
When Hizbullah does intervene, it generally does not do so forcefully unless the disputes between others encroach on cetrain red lines it has identified, such as its weapons and militia forces.
On 7 May 2008, for example, when the government headed by Future Movement leader former prime minister Fouad Siniora moved to dismantle Hizbullah’s communications network, Amal and Hizbullah supporters rampaged through the streets of Beirut and the Druze municipalities, attacking the headquarters of the Sunni-led Future Movement and the Progressive Socialist Party led by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
But the deeper reason for Hizbullah’s silence in the recent crisis lies in its relationship with both sides. Its relationship with Aoun is delicate, in large measure due to his personality which is vain, stubborn and ambitious.
Aoun sees himself as a leader of the Christians of the region as a whole, and not just those of Lebanon. When he commanded the Lebanese army during the Civil War, predominantly manned by Christians, he was noted for his rejection of all political settlements, his readiness to do battle with everyone, and his insistence on retaining the post of prime minister even though this office is reserved for a Sunni Muslim under the Lebanese constitution.
Challenging the ambitions of Aoun and the FPM could jeopardise Hizbullah’s relationship with the Maronite leader. It therefore left that function to Berri, who performs it willingly in the light of the volatile chemistry between him and Aoun.
Amal is close to Hizbullah, yet independent enough to check the excesses of Aoun and the FPM or to stem any unacceptable deterioration in a difficult relationship. This is what played out after the Bassil leaks. The question is whether such brinksmanship will continue to work as a strategy for Hizbullah’s management of its two antagonistic allies.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly