Socialist Worker February 2007
The pro-US government in Lebanon is attempting to unleash a sectarian war to derail an opposition movement led by Hizbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). On Tuesday of last week the country was closed down by a general strike. Roads were blocked, and factories, schools and offices shut as demonstrators demanded the resignation of the government.
The opposition called the general strike after a series of mass demonstrations last December failed to force new elections or convene a national unity government. Prime minister Fouad Siniora has accused the opposition of pushing the country to the edge of civil war. Yet it is the government, which is composed of warlords and sectarian parties, that is stoking fears of civil war.
By the evening, right wing thugs moved to smash the strike. Armed supporters of Siniora opened fire on demonstrators, while in Christian areas the members of the FPM were chased and beaten by armed men waving US flags. The opposition responded to the intimidation by abandoning the strike.
The right wing went on the offensive. In an ominous sign of the attempts to stir up sectarianism, it targeted people dressed in black, the traditional dress for Shia Muslims during a week of commemoration known as Ashoura. Snipers killed Shia students in the Beirut Arab university.
The government enjoys the backing of the West and its allies in the Middle East. They hope that Siniora can achieve what Israel failed to do in last summer’s war – destroy the resistance. Siniora is hoping that by ratcheting up sectarianism he can fatally divide the popular opposition.
During the war there was a movement of solidarity with the resistance. This proved that sectarianism is not the essential nature of the Lebanese. Since the war the government has been talking up fears that Iran and Syria want to take over the country and create ‘the Shia crescent’.
Lebanese politics is a tangle of class and sect. The political system reserves government posts for certain religious sects. This system relies on patronage and corruption to pit different religious groups against each other. Yet cutting across this sectarianism is class. Lebanon is among the most unequal societies in the world. Some 1 percent of the population owns 50 percent of the wealth, while 47 percent of Lebanese share only 2.3 percent of total credit. The chunk of the national debt is owed to the ruling families.
These debts are hitting the poorest hard. The majority of people only earn enough to cover the cost of living for three weeks out of every month. Despite the sectarian tensions, last week’s strike spread from predominately Shia areas, which are the heartlands of the opposition, to poor Sunni Muslim cities and Christian areas.
The strategy of the opposition is feeding the confidence of the right wing. The strike was called to coincide with an aid donors’ conference – known as Paris III – to back up the Siniora government. The US, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France and Germany pledged £3.9 billion in aid on the condition that Siniora implement a VAT rise, cut welfare and privatise state-owned industry.
The opposition has accepted the proposals. Michael Aoun, the FPM leader, announced that he did not oppose the measures, only that he does not believe the money will be used correctly. He was backed by Hizbollah. Neither of the main opposition parties has been able to galvanise wider discontent because they fundamentally believe that neoliberalism is the only solution to Lebanon’s failing economy.
The key to building the movement is opposing both US imperialism and neoliberal policies. Instead the opposition has shied away from the one issue that is guaranteed to unite the vast majority of Lebanon’s workers, peasants and poor. This failure allows the right wing to claim the opposition is only interested in furthering the interests of one religious sect against the other. The opposition has been thrown into confusion.