Lebanese Christians shocked over Shia politics but this could be just the beginning

The Shia camp is not only responsible for upsetting the delicate balance of power in Lebanon but is behind upsetting the religious balance.
Sunday 11/02/2018
Heated dissonance. Supporters of Amal movement hold the party’s flag near burning tires in Beirut, on January 29. (Reuters)
Heated dissonance. Supporters of Amal movement hold the party’s flag near burning tires in Beirut, on January 29. (Reuters)

The old row in Lebanon between the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the Amal Movement recently spilt into the streets. Both parties are allies of Hezbollah and members of the March 8 alliance it leads since 2005 following the exit of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Recent clashes between supporters of both parties reveal dissonance between yesterday’s allies.

The so-called Mar Mikhael agreement of February 2006 between FPM founder Michel Aoun, now Lebanon’s president, and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah was, in essence, based on a political trade-off: Hezbollah would help Aoun get to the presidency and the FPM would go along with Hezbollah’s local and regional strategic choices and let it keep its militia.

The Amal-FPM standoff was triggered by derogatory remarks made by FPM leader — and Aoun’s son-in-law — Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil, about Amal and its chairman, Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament and Hezbollah’s ally.

It has become clear that the relationship between both Shia parties is part and parcel of a well-established and solid system of mutual interests while the relationship between Hezbollah and the FPM is far from being part of that system and remains susceptible to collapse.

Hezbollah has clearly sided with Berri without necessarily abandoning its mediating role. It stated that its relationship with Berri has priority over the rest. The Shia party also failed to condemn the overly exaggerated and intimidating street protests by Berri’s supporters, who did not hesitate to take the demonstrations to Christian-majority neighbourhoods.

The crisis has been defused at the level of the street but the shock felt by the Christian side is apparent. In an interview with the French-language publication Magazine, Bassil said internal choices by Hezbollah were detrimental to Lebanon’s interests. He must have been trying to say that Hezbollah is not ready or is not willing to choose the side of the state when this choice conflicts with the interests of its allies who are deeply involved in corruption. Bassil was also alluding to Hezbollah’s close relation with Berri, whom FPM leaders and supporters see as a hurdle blocking the pro-state choice.

The parliamentary elections in May might be the trigger for a full-blown confrontation. The shock is shared by those who had bet on an alliance with Hezbollah as being the best way to uphold state authority with a greater role in state affairs for the Christian side. Quite obviously, the Christian shock is not caused by Hezbollah’s foreign adventures and its total disregard for the state’s authority. Aoun was among the first to approve of Hezbollah’s Syrian adventure and Bassil has done his best to provide needed diplomatic cover for this adventure.

This time, the shock in the Christian camp was triggered by the boorish and militia-like behaviour of Berri’s supporters, especially when they invaded Christian neighbourhoods. The Christian side has suddenly realised the surprising level of political arrogance of the Shia camp on the local level. The Christian camp likes to believe that the agreement between Hezbollah and the FPM is no longer relevant, especially with the arrival of Saad Hariri on the scene and in light of the predominance of the Iranian influence in Lebanon.

Another lesson from recent events is that Hezbollah has reaped vast political gains since 2006. The party’s militia and its weapons are no longer questioned by the state. The party also took advantage of the political cover provided by its alliance with the Christian camp to make inroads inside the state structure and gain more power. With time, the party has become a de facto powerhouse in Lebanon and can easily afford to lose whatever advantages it reaped from its alliance with the FPM.

The Christian camp is stunned by the sudden realisation that the so-called political Shia camp is not only responsible for upsetting the delicate balance of political power in Lebanon but is behind upsetting the religious balance in the country. For ten years the Christian camp has focused attention and efforts on competing with the Sunni camp. Now, many in the FPM camp are pointing out that the Shia pair — Hezbollah and Amal — are more and more imposing in Lebanese internal politics a policy of “either I or nothing,” in other words “state affairs proceed as we wish or we halt everything.”

Lebanese Christians are beginning to realise that their role in giving victory to the Iranian project over the Saudi project in Lebanon did not bring them security. They have seen concrete manifestations of the aggressive mob mentality of the Shia protesters and the expression of the unbridled arrogance prevailing in the Shia camp. An FPM leader said this uncivilised behaviour is a slap in the face to the Shia themselves and cannot be associated with a parliament speaker.