Lebanon: Sectarian clashes arise from political divisions

Union leaders hand over initiative to opposition parties

On 10 January, Aysha Zaki (CWI, Beirut), reported on socialistworld.net the call by Lebanon’s Federation of Labour Unions (CGTL) for protests and a threatened general strike to stop the government ‘reform’ plans that will hike taxes and cause layoffs. This call, if widely organised by truly representative union leaders, would have got a huge response from workers across all divides. Unfortunately, the union leaders did not properly organise protests widely, and did not democratically spread the organisation of the movement. Instead, union leaders backed off from stepping up workers’ action. Opposition parties took the initiative and called a general strike, last Tuesday.

This action quickly developed into opposition protests, with some sectarian clashes between opposition protesters and the 14th March Forces who back the pro-Western Siniora-led government. Politically divided Christian groups clashed with each other, and so did opposing Muslims. The majority of Shiites back Hezbollah and, therefore, the opposition, and the majority of Sunnis back the government and the Hariri-led 14th March forces.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and the 14th March Forces that formed after the assassination of ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri, cling to power with Western backing, while Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement go to the streets following the withdrawal of opposition members from the government cabinet, demanding the Siniora government’s removal.

Last week’s events highlight the danger of a slide into wider conflict and an eventual civil war. No doubt feeling this, the opposition forces, led by the Shia Hezbollah and the Christian-led Free Patriotic Movement, called off the street protests, last Tuesday.

The increasingly dangerous situation was reflected in more serious clashes last Thursday, when Beirut Arabic University students took to the street in violent riots. Some were armed and a few people were killed or injured.

CWI member, Aysha Zaki, in Beirut, spoke to Niall Mulholland, from socialistworld.net, about the growing crisis:

"The occupation of Beirut’s main central square by opposition forces to the pro-Western Siniora government has gone on for over 50 days, since last December – almost two months. The protests are led by Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement, demanding a new ‘Unity Government’.

"Around 1,000 people stay overnight on the square, at any given time. But the number of protesters goes in waves; between one and one and a half million people protested overall, which are the biggest protests in Lebanon’s history.

"Union leaders raised some criticisms of the Paris Three meeting which took place last week and which is meant to discuss aid to Lebanon following last summer’s attacks by Israel against Hezbollah and the Lebanese people. The ‘international donors’ conference’ in Paris claimed to ‘lift war-devastated Lebanon out of its 41-billion-dollar public debt’. The economic policies of the Paris Three meeting will only add more misery for working people in Lebanon. The planned hikes in taxes, for nothing in return, disgusts workers. Their wages have not even increased with inflation since 1996. Business leaders, whose capital money is stocked in banks abroad, endorsed privatization, and plans to ‘streamline’ the state sector. The Federation of Labour Unions (CGTL) leaders used quite strong class language to attack the proposed cuts.

"Unions in Lebanon are obliged by law to be ‘represented’ along confessional lines. Most union leaders are historically tied to pro-Syrian political forces. But, at the base, the unions are very mixed. Mass mobilization against Paris Three would have provided the unions with a great opportunity to enhance working class unity. There is massive opposition to more cuts. Poverty has grown; 60% of the population lives below the official poverty line. Prices have shot up. The situation for working people, whatever their religious background, is desperate, and getting worse.

"Over the last few weeks, under huge pressure from below, the union leaders organised protests over cuts, for instance at the Education Ministry, and threatened to call a general strike if the government did not back down. The mood of working people is very angry. Workers said to me, ‘We need to overthrow the government’ and ‘We need workers to strike’.

"The Opposition parties, including the Christian leader, Aoun, who is in alliance with Hezbollah, opportunistically supported the unions’ demands, and backed a general strike call. Unfortunately, the union leaders did not provide a clear, class lead. They allowed the opposition parties to hijack the ‘general strike’ issue.

"Last week’s street blockades and protests forced the whole country to stop working. The Siniora government said people should go to work. The opposition parties called for street protests. And the union leaders went quiet.

"Last Tuesday, I went on the streets of Beirut and I saw burning motor vehicle wheel barricades every 2-300 yards. People were not able to go to work, even if they wanted to. The youth on the streets were allied to the main opposition parties, like Hezbollah or the Free Patriotic Movement. It was more like a mass civil disobedience protest.

"I spoke to youth on the barricades and many, in the morning, where very angry about the Siniora government cuts and Paris Three plans. As the day went on, serious street clashes developed between Christian youth connected to opposition and pro-government forces, and between Shiite and Sunnis, along the same political divisions but also along confessional lines. The unions were not there to unite workers and to give direction. "Fearing the clashes would go out of control, General Aoun called an end to the ‘strike’. He said the government ‘wanted a civil war’.

"Now people feel very anxious and in potential danger. They ask can they safely go to different areas of Beirut anymore. Many people are much more cautious and careful about showing their allegiances, like displaying flags.

"The general situation has deteriorated and is, in many ways, reminiscent of the period before the last civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s. But it is not exactly the same situation.  Most workers oppose a return to armed conflict and will strongly resist it. In the recent year or so, hundreds of thousands have come on to the streets in protests against assassinations, for democracy and independence, against corruption and greed, against the neo-liberal cuts, and can do so again but this time united to stop a slide back to civil war.

"But, as last week’s events show, time to find an alternative is not unlimited for the working class of Lebanon. Events can snowball towards wider conflict. The sectarian and religious lines in Lebanon are also under intense pressure from events in the rest of the Middle East, particularly Iraq which is breaking up along sectarian, national and ethnic lines.

"Mass working class opposition in Lebanon is repeatedly undermined by sectarian leaders and by right wing political parties and conservative trade union leaders. Working people need an independent, organised workers’ movement. This has to be run democratically. It entails democratically-elected committees. The current wave of government cuts plans means that union meetings should be held locally, daily, to discuss the way forward to stop the cuts. Only a mighty workers’ movement can unite workers from all backgrounds and break the cycle of sectarianism.

"We need a workers’ party, armed with a socialist programme, to end war and poverty, once and for all. We have no illusions in the current leaders and we call for workers to organise themselves through democratically-organised trade unions. It is the responsibility of all working class fighters and the left to ensure this happens now."


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January 2007