Lebanon: cwi commentary and analysis

Lebanon rocked by assassination and huge protests. The workers’ movement has to give a lead

The following article is an updated version of the article, ‘Hariri’s assassination triggers crisis’, posted on this site on 11 March. The new article includes an analysis of events following the huge opposition demonstration to Syrian troops in Lebanon 13 March. socialistworld.net

cwi commentary and analysis

The mid-February assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, has plunged Lebanon into crisis. Hundreds of thousands have protested on the streets of Beirut and other towns. While 8 March saw possibly up to a million demonstrating against US, Israeli, and French interference in Lebanon, six days later maybe an even bigger protest took place demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

Hariri’s killing has been the spark that has led to the largest demonstrations in the Middle East since the 1978/9 Iranian revolution, a reflection of new instability in the region since the Iraq war. Additionally it has given an opportunity to President Bush to try to seize the initiative and implement more of the US neo-conservatives’ agenda in the region. But this is not proving easy for Washington as the March 8 mass mobilisation showed the immense popular opposition Bush and co. face.

Hariri’s assassination shocked and provoked an immediate response from many Lebanese people. Over 200,000 of Lebanon’s 3.7 million population attended Hariri’s funeral, a crowd representing many classes and religious groupings within the country. An important reason for this massive reaction to Hariri’s killing was fear that it could re-ignite the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, after killing around 150,000 people, about 4% of the country’s total population. The protests also reflected widespread opposition to continued domination by Syrian regime that had, for example, insisted last year on a three-year extension to Lebanese President Lahoud’s term of office. Additionally, there was also the fear that the assassination would both bring a stop to the country’s reconstruction and limit the tourism that has been a very important economic factor.

The opposition protests that continued initially after Hariri’s burial were far smaller than at the 16 February funeral, something that was not often mentioned in the media. A former US diplomat spoke of 25,000 protesting on 28 February, the day the government resigned.

Hariri’s funeral, and especially the protests that developed afterwards, reflected the historic divisions within Lebanon. These later, smaller “opposition” protests were mainly middle class. At first many international media reports did not comment on the social and religious make-up of these protesters, which is a vitally important question in a country so deeply religiously divided as Lebanon. What is clear is that the Shia Muslim population, generally poor and which make up about 40% of the total, was hardly involved at all in the protests that led to the government’s resignation. The Financial Times reported that they were, “still on the side of the pro-Syrian government”.

A BBC reporter wrote of how “Lebanon’s middle and upper classes have been woken from their usual lethargy by the assassination of Hariri” and “Some people here are jokingly calling the phenomenon ‘the Gucci revolution’ – not because they are dismissive of the demonstrations, but because so many of those waving the Lebanese flag on the street are really very unlikely protestors …And in one unforgettable scene an elderly lady, her hair all done up, was demonstrating alongside her Sri Lankan domestic helper, telling her to wave the flag and teaching her the Arabic words of the slogans.” In sharp contrast, the Hezbollah-led demonstration was overwhelmingly made up of the working class and poor.

Lebanon – The masses take to the streets

In the weeks immediately following Hariri’s assassination Lebanon’s government resigned ahead of elections previously scheduled for May and, under increasing international pressure, Syria’s President Assad announced a re-deployment of troops to the Bekaa Valley, prior to their total withdrawal. This move was in line with the 1989 Ta’if Accord that was signed towards the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. This implementation of Ta’if was over 13 years overdue and there was no timescale given to fully implement last September’s UN resolution 1559 which demanded the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops, i.e. Syrian, from Lebanon and Hezbollah’s disarmament.

However within Lebanon a polarisation was taking place on the streets. While up to 100,000 people demonstrated in Beirut on 7 March against the Syrian-supported President Lahoud, the next day at least 500,000, possibly up to a million people – which would mean a quarter of Lebanon’s entire population – attended a mainly Hezbollah organised demonstration. The enormous 8 March protest was called to “Thank Syria” and to reject both “foreign interference” and US-led demands that Hezbollah dissolve its armed wing. This mass protest clearly had an anti-imperialist character, with slogans like “America get out!” and “Death to America!” crying out from the crowds.

The huge 8 March demo showed the depth of opposition within Lebanon to US imperialism and paved the way for the former Prime Minister, Karami, who resigned on 28 February after US-backed opposition protests, to return and start to form a new government on 10 March. With the defeat of this initial US offensive the Syrian regime confirmed that a timetable for the withdrawal of all its troops would be agreed in April. Clearly Damascus aims to defend its interests in Lebanon by indirect means if it has to fully withdraw its army.

But, in this situation of deepening polarisation, the opposition leaders mobilised once again as demonstrations continued. On 13 March around 300,000 attended a Hezbollah led protest in the southern city of Nabatiyeh, but then the next day the opposition organised a protest in Beirut that was widely reported, even by Aljazeera, as probably the “biggest yet”. For many on the 13 March protest the key issue was the withdrawal of the Syrian troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon, but for the opposition leaders they hoped to exploit their supporters’ anger with the aim of drawing closer to Washington and strengthening their own position at home.

Both these two huge demonstrations reflected Lebanon’s religious and social divisions. While the 8 March protest was mainly Shia Muslim in composition, the 14 March opposition rally was mainly Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim. One result of this is that there is the dangerous possibility of open sectarian conflict developing again unless the Lebanese labour movement gives an independent lead. Reflecting the fear of sectarian religious tension the Maronite religious leader warned “if the shows of forces continue in the streets, no one knows where this will lead us to” and currently no further mass demonstrations are being held by either side. Hezbollah says that it has suspended all demonstrations in order to allow room for the prime minister designate Karami to discuss with the opposition.

The tragedy of the current situation is that less than a year since a general strike brought the Lebanese masses together in common struggle, today the workers’ movement is hardly to be seen. Instead of drawing together working people on the basis of what positive in both movements, namely the opposition to foreign domination by either imperialism or the Syrian regime, and proposing a concrete struggle to solve the issues facing the Lebanese masses the workers’ leaders are virtually silent, leaving the way clear for both imperialism and different brands of capitalist politicians to exploit the masses once again.

Lebanon’s deep divides

Historically, the French created Lebanon in 1920 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It has an overwhelmingly Arab population that is divided into different Christian and Muslim denominations. The French included in Lebanon Muslim areas that had previously looked towards Damascus and that wanted to join the newly formed Syria.

Following mass protests, Lebanon won independence from France at the end of 1943. On the basis of the 1932 census that showed that Christians were 54% of the population, it was agreed in the so-called “National Covenant” of 1943 that seats in the parliament would be distributed on a ratio of six Christians to five Muslims. On this basis, the president would be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the parliament’s speaker would be a Shia Muslim, while a Druze, officially regarded as a Muslim denomination, usually had the defence minister’s position. While the 1989 Ta’if Accord equalised the Christian-Muslim ratio it left intact an electoral system that divides voters, candidates and parliamentary seats on a religious basis.

Although Lebanon was, in comparison with its Arab and Turkish neighbours, relatively prosperous for a period after the Second World War, the country faced regular upheavals. In 1958, US marines intervened to aid the then pro-US president.

Over decades shifts in the population balance, including the influx of mainly Sunni Muslim Palestinian refugees, undermined the 1943 ratio. While no census has been taken since 1932, the CIA, in 1986, estimated that the religious balance was 41% Shia, 27% Sunni, 7% Druze, 16% Maronite, 5% Greek Orthodox and 3% Greek Catholics. In addition, there are currently about 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, about 10% of the total population.

The relative decline of the Christian population has weakened this community’s leaders. Before, and especially during the 15-year long civil war that tore Lebanon apart on largely religious or national lines, the Christian leaders increasingly relied on support from outside powers, including Israel, the US, and sometimes Syria. This also extended to different Christian leaders using these external forces in conflicts with their Christian rivals. In 1976, Syrian forces intervened – backed by most Arab governments, the US and Israel – and prevented the defeat of the Christian forces at that time. The Israeli government, then led by Rabin, actually wanted the Syrian forces to come down to the Lebanon’s southern border with Israel but the Damascus regime did not agree.

Later, in 1982, Israeli troops invaded Lebanon for a second time and then, three months later, US, French and Italian troops arrived as “peacekeepers”. However, these “peacekeepers” withdrew in early 1984, after the US and French suffered heavy casualties in two huge bombings in October 1983.

This left two foreign armies in the Lebanon, the Israeli and the Syrian. By 1985, the Israeli forces had pulled back to the “security zone” they had established in southern Lebanon. However, this did not mean that imperialism, at that time, demanded the withdrawal of the Syrian forces; the Syrians were actually regarded as stabilising force. In 1990, George W. Bush’s father, President Bush the First, supported the Syrian military action that forced the Christian leader General Aoun into exile and, thereby, effectively ended the civil war.

After 1990, the Syrian regime had its own reasons for remaining in Lebanon, reasons that included defence strategy, finances, and retaining a bargaining chip in relation to its attempts to regain the Golan Heights that Israel captured during the 1967 war. This was why the Syrian regime ignored parts of the Ta’if Accord – the basis for ending the civil war – that called for all its troops to relocate to the Beqaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, prior to a total withdrawal.

The Syrian regime’s domination is a key reason for the demands from many Lebanese for all its troops to leave. Additionally, with the prospect of support from the US and European Union, there are those, mainly middle class, Lebanese who hope of returning to the country’s previous Western-backed position, as the “Switzerland of the Middle East”, trying to isolate itself from developments in the rest of the Arab world. On the other hand the support for Hezbollah’s radical strand of political Islam amongst many Shias has meant that they are prepared to tolerate the “lesser evil” of Syrian troops as a counter-weight to the threat of new Israeli interventions.

Who gained from Hariri’s death?

The Syrian regime was widely blamed, both in Lebanon and internationally, for Hariri’s assassination. But we cannot be certain who killed Hariri. There is the possibility that he was killed either at the behest of the Syrian regime or by elements within it, fearful that their own interests in the Lebanon were under threat. Certainly Hariri appeared to be moving away from his previous close relationship with the Damascus regime, supporting last September’s joint US-French sponsored UN Resolution 1559. Hariri, who resigned as prime minister last October, was planning a comeback as head of a united opposition in the parliamentary elections scheduled for May.

But as a hugely wealthy businessman, worth over $3.8 billion in 2003, with large business interests in other Middle Eastern countries, Hariri could also have faced threats from business or political rivals in or outside Lebanon. But, after looking at who has immediately gained from his killing, there also has to be the suspicion that Hariri was killed by elements, for example, within the Israeli government or Lebanese opposition, that wanted to galvanise hostility to the Syrian regime in Lebanon and internationally, thereby providing the US and other imperialist powers with an excuse to intervene.

Hariri’s record

Hariri was prime minister for 10 of the 15 years since the civil war ended. He sponsored a massive rebuilding programme but this had slowed down. However, as this reconstruction was financed largely by loans, Lebanon now has a $35 billion state debt, over 185% of its GDP, and what commentators have called a “catastrophic financial position” (Times, London, 15 February 2005). While real GDP grew rapidly in the early 1990s, it slowed down and then went into decline in 1999 and 2000. Since then the economy has grown, but at a much slower rate than before. This is the background to IMF demands for massive spending cuts, privatisations, and the holding down of living standards, in a situation where unemployment is around 20% and about 30% live below the official poverty line.

Hariri’s terms in office were marked by regular workers’ protests against his government’s policies. The main trade union federation, the CGT (General Confederation of Labour), called one general strike in practically every year Hariri was prime minister. Unfortunately, while well supported, these were mostly token actions, not part of a serious campaign to achieve the workers’ demands, including higher pay and an end to privatisation.

A general strike in October 2003 stopped Lebanon, as workers demanded an end to the freeze on the minimum wage, in effect in place since 1996, opposed higher taxes and job cuts, and called for an increase in social spending. A central Beirut demonstration of mainly young workers chanted, “Stop the waste and the plundering, give bread to the poor”.

Then, in May 2004, after spontaneous protests the previous month, the army shot dead five workers, as they took part in a one day CGT general strike, in the very poor Shia Muslim Beirut suburb of Hay-al-Sellom. This brutal repression led to widespread protests in the following days. But, as before, the CGT leadership gave no direction and, fearful of what more protests would mean, called off a further general strike scheduled for the end of June.

As has been seen in many other countries when the working class movement does not act as a unifying force that can offer an alternative, working people can be divided and other forces set the pace. There is the serious threat of renewed sectarian tensions both between Lebanese and also against Syrians. Around half a million Syrians work in Lebanon and there is some tension towards them as they are often used a cheap, illegal labour. Again the labour movement could have acted against the bosses’ divide and rule policy but they did not and, in the bitter atmosphere after Hariri’s assassination, Syrian workers were attacked and many fled the country.

Bush and democracy

The US took the opportunity opened up by Hariri’s assassination to attempt to re-establish its dominance over Lebanon, to weaken opposition to the deal the White House is trying to broker between the Israeli government and the new Palestinian leadership, and to possibly take steps to remove the current Syrian regime.

Immediately after Hariri’s killing Washington sought to utilise the anger at his killing for its own agenda. The US propaganda wheels started turning rapidly. US officials spoke about the Lebanese opposition protests as “people’s power” and the “cedar revolution”, implying that a majority of the Lebanese people fully supported US policy, something that could not even be said in regard to the “opposition’s” supporters.

But the huge Hezbollah-led 8 March protest, far larger than anything the US backed “opposition” had organised up to then, showed that Lebanon has a more complex reality and that there are mighty obstacles to Bush’s plans. It has forced Bush back down from his previous policy of simply denouncing Hezbollah as a beyond the pale “terrorist organisation” and offer, on 15 March, the Hezbollah leadership the chance to “prove they’re not (a terrorist organisation) by laying down arms and not threatening peace”.

Bush presents himself as fighting for “democracy” throughout the Middle East. In a major speech, on 8 March, he cited the Iraqi elections, the very limited municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, and the decision to allow more than one candidate to stand in direct presidential elections in Egypt, as examples that a “critical mass of events” was changing the region and that authoritarian rule was the “last gasp of a discredited past”. To these fine words Bush added a list of demands including freedom of assembly, the right to form political parties, the full participation of women, although significantly not the release of political prisoners or an end to censorship.

Speaking almost simultaneously with the huge Hezbollah-led demonstration, Bush went on to say, with unconscious irony, that “any who doubt the appeal of freedom in the Middle East can look to Lebanon, where the Lebanese people are demanding a free and independent nation …The Lebanese people have the right to choose their own parliament this spring, free of intimidation … Today I have a message for the people of Lebanon: All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience. Lebanon’s future belongs in your hands, and by your courage, Lebanon’s future will be in your hands.”

The US government’s talk of “democracy” is partly a continuation of the propaganda that attempts to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq. It is also used to try to gloss over the fact that the Iraqi elections have not brought stability or even who would form a government when, over six weeks after the vote, the new parliament finally met for the first time.

The reality is that the Bush administration is faced with the ironic situation that its invasion of Iraq, far from stabilising the Middle East, has destabilised the entire region. The popular anger from below now threatens a number of the US’s client Arab regimes. This is the reason why Bush is now advocating a policy of limited, sometimes very limited, “reform” from the top in the hope of preventing revolution from below. As Bush explained in his 8 March speech, “a dictatorship controls the political life of a country, responsible opposition cannot develop, and dissent is driven underground and toward the extreme.”

Increasingly Washington has been fearful that rigid, inflexible regimes like those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia would lead to political and social explosions because they allowed no room for even limited dissent. This is the reason why, in a matter of weeks, the Mubarak regime in Egypt has recently gone from violently suppressing what it called “futile” demands for democratic rights to announcing a limited opening up of the next Presidential election.

This type of “reform” will not prevent Bush and co. working to ensure that US imperialism either directly, or behind the scenes, maintains its interests in the region. Indeed a profitable by-product of “liberalisation” in these countries is that it could easier for foreign companies to secure profitable contracts and markets.

Imperialism can be very flexible with its propaganda. Bush declared in his 8 March speech that, “The Lebanese people have the right to determine their future, free from domination by a foreign power”, apparently not seeing the contradiction that this was denied to the Iraqi people in January!

US government and Syria

Since Hariri’s assassination, the US government has stepped up its demands for the implementation of UN resolution 1559 – the product of a joint US and French effort – and the withdrawal of Syrian forces. The US State Department effectively dismissed Assad’s initial re-deployment statement and stated, “When the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal – no half-hearted measures.”

However the US government has not told the whole truth about its dealings with the Damascus regime. While criticising Syria in his 8 March speech Bush did not, of course, even refer to the well-documented case of recent close co-operation between the US and Syrian intelligence services in regard to the Syrian born Canadian citizen, Maher Arar. Arar was arrested in September 2002 at New York’s JKF airport and then flown by the CIA in one of its “extraordinary rendition” operations to Jordan and handed over to the Syrian regime, which imprisoned and tortured him for 10 months.

Of course, as is to be expected, the US government is hypocritical both about Syria and the UN. Like all UN member countries, the US government simply picks and chooses which UN resolutions it acts upon and which it ignores. Today, the Bush administration, while loudly supporting resolution 1559, does not even mention UN resolution 242, from 1967, which demanded the withdrawal of Israeli forces from areas occupied in the Six Day War. Likewise with resolution 446, from 1979, that declared the Israeli settlements in the occupied areas are illegal. And in today’s anti-Syrian campaign nothing is heard from Washington about resolution 497, from 1981, which declared legally “null and void” Israel’s annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights, territory also occupied in 1967.

Generally, over the past decades, there have been cool relations between Syria and the US. During the ‘Cold War’ the Syrian regime aligned itself with the then Soviet Union against its US-backed neighbours Israel and Turkey, plus, in the 1980s, Iraq. While in the mid-1960s some radical anti-capitalist measures were taken, the Syrian regime was an authoritarian dictatorship that was prepared to brutally suppress opposition, as it did in 1982 when it crushed the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama. Despite its past periodic co-operation with the US, the neo-cons today surrounding Bush see the Syrian regime as an unreliable factor. In response to these threats from Washington, the Syrian regime has increasingly attempted to curry favour with some Western governments, like the British and French, while simultaneously retaining its position in Lebanon and seeking to win the return of the Golan Heights.

The Israeli government for a long time supported Syrian troops remaining in Lebanon, “The idea was that the Syrians are awful, but they provide an address if something goes wrong and represent the status quo,” a senior Israeli official said. “But the status quo Syria represents is no longer good”. Another Israeli official acknowledged that there is “some apprehension about Syria leaving Lebanon, but it’s a calculated risk one has to take to weaken Hezbollah”. However there was not complete agreement on this. Last December the Israeli national security council warned about the destabilising effect of a Syrian exit from Lebanon, which could give Hezbollah “greater freedom of operation to escalate the conflict on Israeli’s northern border.” (New York Times, 11 March)

The Syrian regime is now under increased outside pressure and fears for its own future should an opposition movement begin to develop inside the country. That is why, at the end of February, it made a gesture towards Washington by handing over Saddam Hussein’s half-brother to US forces in Iraq.

Although Syria was not included in Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, in 2002, it has now jumped to the top of Bush’s foreign policy agenda. Of course, the “axis” speech was made in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and Bush did not want Syria to cause any difficulties for the attack. Now the situation has changed because the US and Israeli governments see Syria, and especially Hezbollah, the mainly Shia Islamic movement, as a threat to their attempt to reach a deal with the new moderate Palestinian leadership that falls well short of a viable Palestinian state


The Israeli and US governments fear Hezbollah because, as a symbol of resistance to Israeli expansionism, it can inspire opposition to any Israeli-PLO deal that the leaves Palestinians with only a semi-colonial, Bantustan-style entity, instead of their own state. Hezbollah can do this because it is the only Arab force that can say it has defeated the Israeli military.

After its first invasion in 1978, Israeli forces again invaded Lebanon in 1982, during which time they laid siege to Beirut, before pulling back to southern Lebanon in 1985. Hezbollah fighters attacked both the Israeli and their Christian proxy force, the South Lebanon Army, undermining the occupation. Then, in May 2000, Hezbollah were able to force an earlier than expected withdrawal of Israeli forces. On the basis of both this record of resistance, and the social and education work it did amongst the Shias, one of the poorest parts of Lebanese society, Hezbollah has been able to build a powerful base.

It is because Hezbollah stands out as a symbol of resistance that, in UN resolution 1559, the US linked the question of the disarmament of its up to 20,000 strong militia to the withdrawal of Syrian troops, and Washington continued to insist that it is a “terrorist organisation”.

For some time the European imperialist powers blocked these US attempts to get the UN and the EU to declare Hezbollah a “terrorist organisation” as they did do not want to rule out deals with the Hezbollah leaders. They argued for a policy of engagement with Hezbollah’s pro-capitalist leadership, with the idea of attempting to incorporate them in the same way that is now being done with Mahoud Abbas and the new PLO leaders and what the British government is trying to do with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.

After the mighty demonstration of Hezbollah’s mass support on March 8 the Bush administration has started to indicate a willingness to come to a deal with the Hezbollah leaders. Imperialism is starting to carry out a “carrot and stick” approach, making threats as well as offers to the Hezbollah leaders. While Bush was making some conciliatory noises, Israeli prime minister Sharon was calling on the EU to list Hezbollah as a “terrorist organisation” and not distinguish between its military and political wings.

Democracy in the Middle East?

The Lebanese government’s resignation in February was hailed in the West as a victory for the “people” and a step towards “democracy”. But the enormous demonstration on 8 March showed the reality of the situation; a significant mass opposition to US policy in a deeply divided country.

Immediately after the Lebanese government’s resignation, and the Syrian forces’ pull back, many commentators asked whether this marked another victory for the “neo-cons” and their plans for the Middle East. As we have seen, Bush and co. have tried to seize the initiative, both in terms of advancing their own plans and in propaganda. But even before 8 March the historian and commentator, Timothy Gorton Ash, wrote, “There’s a problem if the brand name for Lebanese people power – cedar revolution – seems to come from a senior American official, who in the next breath talks about "freedom from foreign influence” (Guardian, London, 2 March 2005).

The presentation of the Bush government as fighters for “democracy” is really a cynical cover for their policies, in the same way that they lied about Iraq’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction” and Saddam’s “links” with 9/11. But this is not to say that, in some countries, illusions in these democratic promises will not exist, if only for a short time.

An important part of this US propaganda offensive is the holding of the Iraqi elections, and particularly the high turnout of Kurds and Shias. But it has to be remembered that relatively early elections were not in Bush’s original occupation plans for Iraq. Different schemes were put forward three times to delay elections but the threat of mass protests, particularly by the Iraqi Shias, forced the US to change its plans, to hold elections, and to try to come to a deal with different Iraqi leaders. This is something that is barely mentioned today by the international press.

It is possible that in other Middle Eastern countries the protests in Lebanon, and even the holding of elections in Iraq, will encourage further popular attempts to win greater democratic rights. But the masses will be in for a bitter disappointment if they put their trust in the promises of Bush and co.

Capitalism and democracy

Governments like Bush’s try to rewrite history. The White House claims that it is right wing parties like the US Republicans that are instrumental in winning “democracy” and that capitalism and democracy go together. The reality is somewhat different. In country after country, the most basic democratic rights have not been granted “from above” but secured only after mass struggle, usually led by the workers’ movement. There is no automatic link between capitalism and democratic rights. It has only been in the last hundred years that mass struggle, or the threat of struggle, has won equal voting rights, both for workers and women, in most of the developed capitalist countries, let alone the rest of the world.

US imperialism is not averse to supporting bloody repression, and recent events give another example of its real standards. Less than two years ago, Bush’s government sponsored an attempted military coup to remove the radical populist president Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Since 14 February, Bush has been in the forefront of denouncing the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Harare but the US adopted a different, much milder, approach to the Pinochet-led, extreme right-wing, military dictatorship in Chile, which in 1976 blew up a car, in Washington DC, carrying the exiled Chilean politician, Rolando Letelier. Despite this “terrorist” attack, the US supported Pinochet in power for a further 14 years. The difference was that the US backed the 1973 military coup that brought Pinochet to power and Letelier was a supporter of the overthrown moderate left wing Allende government.

Socialists have always battled for democratic rights – like the right to organise, to strike, to vote – under capitalism, to enable the working class and poor to organise and struggle. These rights are also essential elements of the workers’ democratic control and management necessary to create a socialist society, alongside the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy.

Capitalists have a different view of democratic rights, which is why historically they were not in the forefront of demanding fully democratic voting systems. For them, the current form of parliamentary democracy is the most efficient system of rule; it provides safety valves for the expression of discontent; it can be used to prevent individual capitalists damaging the interests of the system as a whole and, most importantly, it does not, except in periods of mass radicalisation, threaten their ownership of a country’s wealth, the basis of their system.

However, history has shown many times that, when mass movements threaten capitalism, the ruling class has always been prepared to use repression, ranging from widespread arrests to fascism and civil war, to defend its rule. When either its own interests and/or capitalism are threatened, imperialism joins in or sponsors reaction, such as when the British and US governments restored the Shah of Iran to power in 1953. The willingness of imperialism and capitalism to use brutal methods, if necessary, to suppress opposition to its rule is a central feature of its character. Negroponte, the outgoing US Ambassador in Iraq, and the incoming US ‘Security Czar’, was involved in the 1980s in aiding the extreme right wing ‘Contra’ fighters in Nicaragua, and the creation of military death squads in Honduras.

A warning from this history of repression is that, given the social and economic conditions in the Middle East, in addition to imperialism’s interest in its oil, it is unlikely that any democratic order based upon capitalism would be stable or long lasting.

Nevertheless, repression can never permanently suppress movements, and the ruling class can only seek to maintain their rule by incorporating or neutralising the leaders of popular parties or movements. Today in Iraq, the US is currently doing this with many Shia and Kurdish leaders and hope to do the same with Sunni leaders.

At the same time, this shift in policy is allowing Bush to dress up in democratic colours, to speak of a “new era” in the Middle East, and seek to exploit the masses’ desire for change. In some countries it is continuing a tactic – developed during the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the eastern European states – of exploiting the masses’ demands for democratic rights – political, economic and social – and their hostility to the old elite, to bring to power pro-imperialist regimes.

Possibilities for socialist ideas

However, imperialism is only able to carry out this type of policy out because of the current absence of a strong socialist workers’ movement that can offer a real alternative. But recent events in the Lebanon does show how potentially quickly imperialist plans can unravel once the working masses move into action.

The size of the 8 March anti-US demonstration in Beirut was a big blow to Bush’s plans and showed the depth of anti-imperialist feelings in much of the Middle East. A workers’ movement could channel this mood in a socialist direction. But in its absence the leadership of the anti-imperialist protests is left in the hands of pro-capitalist, religious leaders, as well as being exploited by the Syrian regime, and cannot appeal to those genuinely demanding Lebanon’s freedom from foreign domination.

At the 8 March protest, the Hezbollah leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, called for a “government of national unity”, a call that could gain support as a reaction to the threat of sectarian division and imperialist intervention but one that does not answer the problems working people face. The return of Karami as prime minister may be viewed by some as a defeat for the US and Israel, but he is no friend of the Lebanese working masses. In May1992, Karami was forced to resign as prime minister on the first day of a four-day general strike called against his economic policies.

The tragedy in the Lebanon is that the working class, despite its long history of struggle, is not setting the pace at the present time. Different religious factions and leaders dominate. The parliamentary elections scheduled for May will make no difference, as they will be dominated by the pro-capitalist sectarian parties of all religions. This weakens resistance to the capitalists and their system, as well as posing the possibility of sectarian conflict. What is required is a genuine workers’ party embracing workers from all religious backgrounds and fighting for a socialist alternative. Such a programme could be built upon the lessons of Lebanese workers’ recent struggles, combining support for democratic rights and opposition to sectarian division with the socialist policies necessary for a genuine reconstruction and development, could win widespread support. Opposing both imperialist interventions, either direct or indirect, and the continued presence of Syrian troops it would have to mean the right for the people of Lebanon to decide their own future, free of outside control. Such a united workers movement could cut across religious divisions and offer protection to minorities fearful of sectarian attack.

The mass demonstrations, particularly the mainly Shia March 8 protest, showed the potential inherent in the mass mobilisation of the working class and poor. The working people of Lebanon need to rely on their own strength and to appeal for support from the working people of the entire region. Although the Hezbollah leaders led the “Thank Syria” demonstration, the Syrian leadership can quite cynically do an about turn to further their own interests. After all, it was the Syrian army that attacked Hezbollah in Beirut in 1987.

The workers movement’s alternative to a “government of national unity” should be a workers’ and poor peasants’ government, a government that would carry out socialist and not capitalist policies. Such a government could appeal to the working masses in Syria to follow a similar road, and also set an example to both Palestinians and Israeli workers and youth. It would show that, in concrete, there is a socialist alternative to the chaos and poverty that repeatedly grips the entire region, and it would lay the basis for a genuinely democratic, voluntary, and equal socialist federation of the Middle East.

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March 2005