The violent clashes that started in Tripoli last week and spread to Beirut last night represent the most serious challenge yet to the authority of the Future Movement, the largest and most influential party in the March 14 coalition. But amid the over-excited talk of this representing the beginning of a Sunni Hezbollah and the establishment of a ‘Northern Suburb’, it's important to keep in mind that this is more a gesture born of frustration than a serious and considered plan. Given that Hezbollah itself has reached the limits of its power as it finds itself locked in an ineffective government that has damaged its credibility, it is also questionable whether this model can bring anything but further instability and chaos to Lebanon.
While the eruption of violence has been widely attributed to the uprising in Syria, in reality the ‘spill-over’ effect has been greatly exaggerated. This explosion has more to do with internal dynamics and the Lebanese state’s diminishing ability to contain and negotiate political conflicts than with external factors. While the post-Syrian withdrawal arrangement has never worked properly and experienced frequent crises, it was dealt a severe blow when March 14 and the Future Movement abruptly found themselves outside power last year. The FM reacted badly to the collapse of the government, allowing thousands of its supporters to take to the street in violent protests.
But the real problem lies in the inability of the Future Movement to rise up to the challenges of being outside power as its leader Saad Hariri went into a protracted sulk allowing other Sunni leaders to challenge him for power on the street. The discrepancy between the FM's stance in promoting the rule of law while in power and its behaviour while outside it also undermined its credibility significantly. The images of the armed supporters of the FM in Beirut last night highlighted this obvious contradiction between rhetoric and reality. The FM is now in the position of having to appear tough to its core Sunni audience while maintaining outwardly its commitment to the rule of law.
The emerging forces on the Sunni street, particularly the Salafis, don’t face such restrictions. They have galvanised on Hariri’s withdrawal and political weakness to portray themselves as the defenders of the Sunni community. The development of the Syrian uprising into a militarised conflict has enabled them to play a supporting role for the Free Syrian Army and publicly capitalise on their solidarity with Syrian Sunnis while the Future Movement appears to have done very little to support them. The Salafis are tapping into a reservoir of discontent among Sunnis, particularly in the North of Lebanon, that extends from poverty and deprivation to a sense of grievance towards Hezbollah’s apparent privileged position within the Lebanese political system.
It’s the expression of this sense of grievance in conjunction with clashes in Tripoli and Beirut that’s leading to speculation that Salafis are now preparing to replicate the Hezbollah ‘model’ by arming themselves and creating a zone of influence that is free from interference by the Lebanese state. The fact that this antagonism to the state and to the army was echoed by some Future Movement MPs indicate that they don’t want to concede too much ground to the Salafis. Given that the parliamentary elections are scheduled for next year, many of them could be preparing to jump ship if they sense that the tide of popular support is draining away from the FM.
But is this ‘Sunni Hezbollah’ model feasible or even desirable among the majority of Sunnis? The trouble in dealing with sectarian stereotypes in Lebanon is that they are just that: inaccurate representations of entire communities. There is as much variation in opinions among Sunnis as there is across the entire political spectrum in Lebanon. (For the record, the same thing applies to Shiites despite the rhetoric about Hezbollah and Amal’s dominance.) While discontent might be felt by the majority of Sunnis, only a minority of them would support Sunni militarisation.
The Future Movement would certainly undermine itself significantly if it were to officially support this militarisation, but in the absence of strong leadership many of its supporters will continue to push in that direction, if only not to lose the Sunni rights’ argument to the Salafis. But the Salafis on the other hand appear to be intent on playing this card to its maximum potential. Issues like the large number of Islamists detained without charge for years in Lebanese prisons are lending credibility to their demands, especially that they appear to be singled out by this form of arbitrary detention.
Their desire to exploit Sunni grievances politically however is a far cry from a concentrated plan to become the ‘Sunni Hezbollah’. It’s also important to note that in the two incidents that led to the clashes last week and yesterday, the arrest of Shadi Mawlawi the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahid, the clashes came as a response to perceived provocation rather than initiated by Salafis or FM supporters. Nevertheless, there are quite obviously hundreds of well-armed men ready to be deployed immediately both in Tripoli and in Beirut, which in itself is a strong indication of the increasingly militarised ‘Sunni street.’
Time will tell whether this will develop into the ‘Sunni Hezbollah’ scenario or remain a form of maintaining a limited militia as a deterrent. There are however a number of reasons why trying to replicate the Hezbollah model will not work. Firstly, Hezbollah’s military capability itself wasn’t built overnight but required years of training and active combat against the Israeli army in the South of Lebanon. Secondly, Hezbollah didn’t acquire its legitimacy by fighting other militias on behalf of Shiites, its involvement in the civil war was in fact relatively limited. The party’s popularity was at its peak when it appeared to transcend sectarian divisions. Conversely it suffers when its appeal becomes restricted to its Shiite base, as for example happened during the past year because of its support of the Syrian regime, and after the events of 7 May.
Thirdly, Hezbollah has learned to choose its battles very carefully. Its stance during the 2008 Israel war in Gaza was a clear illustration of that. The leadership of the party clearly recognised the importance of not being drawn into conflicts for which it was not prepared, regardless of political costs. Fourthly, Hezbollah’s niche has been carefully prescribed to give it a form of autonomy in return for giving its competitors more influence over economic and administrative policies. When this formula was disturbed by the formation of the current cabinet, the party entered into the widest coalition possible without March 14 and was content to have a modest share in the cabinet in proportion to its real size and influence.
All of which doesn’t apply to a Salafi version of Hezbollah. They won’t match Hezbollah’s logistical and military capabilities any time soon, and without significant funding and training. Their appeal will be limited as the majority of Sunnis will recognise that they are substituting a national leadership role, albeit badly performed by Saad Hariri, for a nakedly confessional and diminished role. Furthermore, expanding the role the Salafis are playing in the Syrian uprising will only open them to retaliation by the Syrian regime and drag the country further into the conflict across the border.
Lastly, a Salafi niche within the Lebanese political system will undermine the very group that Hezbollah depended on since the 90s to administer the country’s economy, the Sunni business class represented by figures like Hariri and current Prime Minister Najib Mikati. There is no plausible scenario for coexistence between the two groups, especially as they compete for the votes of the same support base.
All of this doesn’t of course rule out an attempt by the Salafis to replicate the Hezbollah ‘model’ in North Lebanon. Yet the scenario being circulated in the media has a whiff of outlandishness and fear-mongering about it. The Salafi ‘threat’ has been created by the incompetence of the political class and its patronising attitude towards the people of Tripoli and Akkar. The Future Movement must take its share of the blame for nurturing this ‘anger reservoir’ and for cynically deploying it in moments of crisis. Hezbollah, for its part, must contemplate the type of role model it has become and decide whether this will be in its interest or the interest of the country in the long run.