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Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon

Nadim Shehadi | Open Democracy | 22 August 2006

The historic contest between two visions of what Lebanon is and should be will shape the country’s direction after Hizbollah’s war with Israel, says Nadim Shehadi.

The United Nations Security Council resolution 1701 agreed in New York on 11 August 2006 was instrumental in facilitating the ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah that came into effect on the morning of 14 August, ending the war that had lasted thirty-three days. It is a real, but limited, achievement: the resolution ignores the regional and international aspects of the conflict, and assumes that the solution to the problem of Hizbollah’s arsenal of weaponry within Lebanon can be a political rather than a military one.

Whether this wager can succeed will depend on the emerging power-balance between two visions of the country and how this has been affected by the war. The outcome of this political struggle will determine the deeper result of the battle for Lebanon.

Two projects

For the past two decades, since the latter years of the 1975-90 civil war, two competing projects have been running in parallel in Lebanon. One aims at building a Riviera, a Monaco of the eastern Mediterranean; the other a Citadel or bunker, at the frontline of confrontation with Israel and the United States.

Each of these projects has both a local and a regional dimension, drawing a different lesson from the civil war while connecting Lebanon to one or other of its neighbours in particular ways. Each has adherents from all strands of Lebanese society, and neither is purely sectarian. Each has a different vision of how to rebuild the state and ensure the security and prosperity of the citizen. In the regional aspect, Saudi Arabia has been the main investor in the Riviera, and Iran the principal stakeholder in the Citadel.

The Riviera wants to revive the model of pre-war Lebanon, centred on Beirut as a cosmopolitan open society which relies for its prosperity on trade and services. This is protected by its alliance with the west and by being on the side of international legality. Investment, mainly in infrastructure, is sufficient to sustain the role that the country was destined to play, making the army and a military role for the country superfluous. On this basis of commerce plus tolerance, the rest takes care of itself.

The Riviera project believed in the success of the middle-east peace process and banked on Beirut coming to play a pivotal role as a financial and business centre. It would be a playground for the wealthy of the oil-rich Gulf states (Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia) and a home base for returning Lebanese expatriates. The main architect of the Riviera reborn was former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, along with the Gulf states and those other Arab states (principally Egypt and Jordan) which had concluded peace treaties with Israel and were on good terms with the west, particularly France and the United States.

The Citadel project draws very different lessons from the past. In its vision, Lebanon’s collapse into civil war was due to the country’s weak state, a society lacking cohesion and a strong national identity, and too great an openness to foreign interference. The country thus needed a powerful army and security services to protect it, and a state able to provide services for the citizen and play an active role in the economy.

While the Riviera needed friends, the Citadel needed an external enemy in order to keep the nation united. The peace process – especially a separate peace between Lebanon and Israel – was taboo. Support for armed resistance against Israeli occupation of the south (between 1978 and 2000) compensated for not having participated in previous Arab-Israeli wars.

The end of eighteen years of Israeli occupation of the area south of the Litani river in May 2000 was a victory for the Citadel, but it also threatened to undercut its legitimacy by depriving it of a cause to struggle for; this made the issue of the Shebaa farms – a strip of territory on the Lebanese-Israeli border which Israel continued to occupy – a cause to maintain the project.

After 2000, the Citadel vision of Lebanon continued to propound the view that the west was an unreliable protector that had let Lebanon down on several occasions. Its main architect in the political sphere in recent years has been Emile Lahoud, first as commander of the army and then as president of the republic. His principal alliances are with Syria, Iran, Hizbollah, Hamas and in general the anti-US global front, from Venezuela to China.

From epic struggle to paralysis

The internal battle between the Riviera and the Citadel erupted in summer 2004 over the attempt by Lebanon’s neighbour and would-be overlord, Syria, to extend the mandate of President Emile Lahoud. UN Security Council resolution 1559 of September 2004, sponsored by France and the US, can be understood as an assault on the Citadel in response; it called for the disarmament of all local and foreign militias, including Hizbollah, as well as a halt to Syrian interference in internal affairs.

From the perspective of the Riviera project, the resolution restored protection over Lebanon twenty years after the US marine barracks were blown up in October 1983 and had caused both the French and the US (then part of a multinational force to oversee the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation) to cut and run. What followed was a year of turmoil marked by the assassination of Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005. This dealt a heavy blow to the Riviera, and provoked a wave of populist outrage and muscle-flexing celebrated by some as the “cedar revolution“.

Two demonstrations following Hariri’s death symbolised this period of epic mobilisation and in effect supported the contrasting visions of Lebanon’s future: one (“pro-Syrian”) on 8 March 2005 attracted about half a million people, the other (“anti-Syrian”) on 14 March claimed one and a half million. There followed the withdrawal of Syrian troops in April, elections in June in which the “14 March” camp won an overwhelming majority in parliament, and a series of assassinations and attempted assassinations which targeted journalists and politicians (among them Samir Kassir, George Hawi, May Chidiac and Gebran Tueni) associated with this camp. After a couple of changes in government, Lebanon by the end of 2005 ended up with a political compromise where the government was dominated by the majority faction but included two Hizbollah members in cabinet for the first time.

The tug-of-war between the two agendas in 2005-06 created political paralysis in Lebanon. The core debate was over the legitimacy of maintaining an armed resistance force outside government control. Those who favoured disarming Hizbollah claimed that Israel’s withdrawal from the south had removed any need for Lebanon to have an armed resistance, that the country could rely on international alliances to protect itself from all threats, and that diplomacy and the UN were the means to regain the Shebaa farms and achieve other national demands.

By contrast, Hizbollah and its supporters claimed that Israel continues to be a dangerous and evil enemy intent on destroying Lebanon in revenge for the 2000 withdrawal, that armed resistance is needed because no one (Beirut government, Lebanon’s international alliances or the UN) could protect you when Israel attacks, and that only armed resistance can recover occupied land and release prisoners.

Coup and counter-coup

This argument is highlighted by the twists of Lebanese politics and diplomacy that accompanied, but were also overshadowed by, Hizbollah’s war with Israel. The Hizbollah cross-border operation on 12 July was regarded by many inside Lebanon’s government as precipitating a virtual coup d’etat after Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, had imposed his agenda on the country by dragging it into a war that was to lead to its destruction.

The mechanics of the coup are interesting. Lebanon’s prime minister Fouad Siniora, the quintessential Riviera man, at first criticised Hizbollah and denounced its capture of the two Israeli soldiers. He went on to meet with his ally, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and two weeks into war proposed at the Rome conference a seven-point plan for a diplomatic settlement that might allow his government to regain control of the domestic political agenda.

The US’s support for Israel’s military operation and rejection of a ceasefire undermined Siniora’s position. This left him with no option but to refuse to meet Rice on the day of the Qana massacre, to salute Hassan Nasrallah, and (in the following days) to receive visits from the foreign ministers of Iran (Manouchehr Mottaki) and Syria (Walid Moallem). Both Moallem and Mottaki revelled in their conquest of Lebanon and issued directions and instructions.

Meanwhile, the highest-ranking US visitor to Beirut was under-secretary of state David Welch, whose principal meeting was with the speaker of Lebanon’s parliament Nabih Berri, whom Hizbollah had charged to represent it in negotiations. It was as if the combined effect of US and Israeli actions was to force Fouad Siniora from one camp to the other by making his position untenable.

The counter-coup arrived a few days later, when Arab League foreign ministers parachuted into Beirut, expelled their Syrian colleague from their counsels and dragged Siniora back into the fold by lobbying the UN Security Council to come more into line with the seven-point plan he had earlier outlined. It was a diplomatic tour de force by the Arab emissaries in favour of restoring legality.

It is also only one skirmish in a lengthy political battle that will far outlast the armed conflict of July-August 2006. In the short term, Hizbollah – representing the Citadel project – has emerged victorious from recent events, not so much because of the military outcome but because of the political messages that flow from it. The Israeli military campaign and the US support for it has – wholly against their professed intentions – certainly vindicated much of the Citadel’s argument and dealt a heavy political blow to the Riviera.

At the same time, the political system in Lebanon works by consensus and a complete victory by one or other side is less likely than a new equilibrium between the two visions. A coherent intervention by the international community that offers the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for Lebanon, supporting the country with both military and civil assistance, could help prevent another Israeli adventure impelled by unrealisable goals that produces exactly the opposite of what it sets out to achieve. It could also help shift the internal balance of forces in Lebanon back towards the Riviera camp.

What happens in the coming days and weeks in Lebanon is crucial to the country’s long-term future. The real battle for Lebanon has only just begun.

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