Lebanon: “National Unity” government masquerade to “renew” the system

Workers’ alternative to sectarianism and neo-liberalism needed

The latest hostage exchange between Hezbollah and Israel saw mass celebration in the streets of Lebanon. Sectarian-based political figures, who only a few weeks ago led armed sectarian clashes in different areas around the country, now merged into a “national unity” behind the freed prisoners and behind Hezbollah. Some have even made a U-turn on their position on Hezbollah holding its weapons and are now rallying behind the resistance. Many Lebanese workers, while happy to see the hostages finally freed and the bodies of the dead hostages returned, are watching this charade with disgust as they go home to their ‘mixed areas’ where the fighting has taken place and as their living conditions deteriorate.

Sectarianism masked behind “National Victory”

The hostage swap, which was negotiated by international diplomats, saw 5 Lebanese prisoners and around 200 dead bodies of people from Arab origin, some of whom had been buried over three decades ago in Israel, swapped for 2 Israeli soldiers killed in the 2006 war. According to official reports, this means there are no longer Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. This is celebrated as another victory for Hezbollah.

The Israeli prisoners were taken hostage by Hezbollah in July 2006, with the aim of negotiating their return, through an exchange like the latest one. The 2006 response of the Israeli state to the hostage-taking was one of brutal mass bombardment and a total of 1 million cluster bombs were dropped in Lebanon. Minor temporary invasions were also carried out by the IDF across the country, with the aim of driving out Hezbollah. But this failed, despite the fact that 1 million refugees fled the south of Lebanon. After 34 days of mass destruction and over 1,000 civilians killed, Hezbollah were not defeated. On the contrary, support for armed resistance reached 80% of the population; the highest ever figure.

However, support for all the parties in Lebanon fluctuated since 2006, depending on developments. The last drop in the support for both the pro-government and the opposition parties came soon after the recent civil conflict, in which Hezbollah and its supporters used military power to change the balance of forces in the streets.

This conflict was soon followed by a ‘Unity Government’ and the formation of the new cabinet was completed. The new Lebanese government now means that the opposition has a third quorum plus one (11 out of 30). The opposition’s ministers can veto any government decision. This was the main demand of the opposition since the resignation of its ministers and the beginning of its street protest in November 2006. The Seniora-led 14th March coalition had exclusive control of the government and ignored continuous protests of the opposition. But the recent armed conflict, which lasted over one week and led to 150 people killed, forced the Seniora ministers to finally back down.

Lebanon now has a new president, Michel Suleiman, who was elected by both main parties as the ‘neutral’ to fill the presidential role, which was empty since November 2007. One of the Suleiman’s first steps, after being elected, was to reassure Hezbollah that the resistance is in the interests of the ‘whole country’ and that its relationship with the Lebanese army will stay strong. Suleiman also met the Syrian president, Assad, and declared that diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon will restart and that the two countries are to open embassies, for the first time. Lebanon is now officially recognized as an independent state by the Syrian government, which had not historically given Lebanon any diplomatic recognition.

‘Renewal’ of the system

The ‘political class’ has a long tradition of sectarian conflicts and continuous crises, leading to a renewal of the same system, which, in turn, leads back to war. Historically, workers and students’ movements have been broken up by civil conflicts. This was seen on 7 May 2008, when a general strike calling for a rise in the minimum wage, with the mass support of the Lebanese working class, was hijacked by the opposition and, within hours, turned into a week long civil conflict.

The 15 years long civil war, between 1975 and 1990, had a regional and an international side to it (given the Palestinian question and the Cold War). But the conflict evolved out of a period of upheavals around issues affecting students and workers. The movement, at the time, called for free education and included demands for workers’ rights. Mass demonstrations and general strikes shook the foundations of the system. But these developments were quickly polarized around the national question and, in the absence of a mass socialist movement able to unite workers and youth across confessional and national lines, led to armed clashes in the streets, which lasted one and a half decades.

The Taef Agreement, made at the end of the civil war, was meant to supposedly settle the conflict between sectarian leaders. It aimed to take into account some of the new demographic divisions of the country, due to population growth and migration. A new balance of sectarian divisions – ‘power sharing’ – similar to previous agreements was the result. The only forces that benefited from this arrangement are found in the sectarian political spectrum. Secular leaders and left parties were totally excluded from the ‘renewed’ power structures.

Run up to parliamentary elections

Undoubtedly, the popularity of different political leaders in Lebanon fluctuates depending on the issues and methods employed by those in power, and which often expose the real interests behind their policies. The semi-feudal capitalist class leans on its population along religious and ethnic lines, to divide and rule, particularly when it sees the working class and the poor united around bread and butter issues. The ruling class fosters and reinforce polarisation amongst the working class for their class interests. When elections impend, sectarian political leaders make unpredicted twists and turns, to gather support and win votes, while examining the mood among the masses, and trying to buy votes by distributing sums of money.

The serious effects of such politics are paid for by the poor masses. Today, working people, who live side by side, and who were forced into ferocious in-fighting – “for their cause” as they were told only a few weeks ago – are now supposed to go back to co-living cohesively because their leaders are “united” around the National Unity Government. In other words, now that the latest power struggle ended with a settlement between the opposing forces, and the backing down of the previous 14th March government, people are left in worse living conditions, and with a ‘united’ government that carries on with the same economic policies as the previous administration.

No alternative

The economic programme of Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement, the largest block in parliament, and his followers have never been opposed by any of the other mainstream parties. Opposition leader, Aoun, the Christian populist leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, clearly stated, on 6 May, the day before the general strike called by the General Union, that he “urged all bosses and workers to take to the streets and join the general strike”. Nasrallah, the general secretary of Hezbollah, made it clear when asked about the strike that his movement “would not hide behind the bread issue” in their struggle against the Western-backed government. This means that the two main parties which formed the opposition during the two year-long crisis will change the balance of forces in the government, as will be expressed in the parliamentary elections in 2009. These opposition forces are not willing to stand up against the neo-liberal agenda of the last government or against the capitalist system, which breeds war and poverty. Many of the political forces that previously clung to the Western-backed government of Seniora, such as the Druze leader like Jumblatt, are now rallying behind Hezbollah. They look to coming elections and are willing to go as far as is needed to get into an electoral coalition.

Neo-liberalism in the Arab world

While workers and the poor masses from Lebanon to Egypt to Morocco struggle against the massive increases in prices of energy and basic foods, the Arab elite, from Saudi Arabia to Iran, are making deals and dividing shares with their multinational partners. Local powers, like Qatar, try to negotiate agreements between the opposing forces, acting as ‘mediators’ for their own benefit.

At a time of an unprecedented gap between the rich and poor, and during an economic decline, hitting the poorest in the Arab world hardest, oil prices are rapidly growing. The Gulf state monarchies are playing on the oil boom to continue to push through privatization in neighbouring countries. The “free market” is globally pushed along by multi-national corporations and their institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF. There has been huge enrichment of the small Arab elite over the past couple of decades, while the masses are increasingly impoverished. In Egypt, 250,000 people ‘live’ in graveyards. Enormous inequalities reflect enormous contradictions caused by the globalization of capitalism and by increased insecurity and disparity. This is seen not only among workers and the poor masses of the Arab world but also amongst the middle-classes.

More than 30% of Lebanese workers live under the poverty line – on less than $2, a day according to the UN! 60% of the population faces worsening poverty. Registered unemployment is at 20%. Public services, already on the edge, have deteriorated and are now under the threat of privatization. Free trade agreements are now opening borders to capital, multi-national companies and billionaire entrepreneurs and oligarchs.

Workers in Lebanon are in urgent need of a united workers’ movement, which is the only force that can provide a way out of this strangling economic crisis for working class families. It is not justified that the housing and banking sectors possess great wealth while other economic sectors are collapsing, one after the other.

A fighting, independent trade union movement can act in the interest of all workers and provide an alternative programme to the policies offered by mainstream parties; this is a necessary step towards building a mass working class party that can unite workers from all backgrounds.

In Lebanon, the masses face the real threat of more sectarian clashes and divisions, and a continuous slide towards civil wars. The need for a working class party, with mass support, that protects the rights of workers and resists working people being exploited by right wing and confessional-based parties, in government or in opposition, is growing ever more urgent, day by day.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) in Lebanon calls on trade unions and the left to play a supportive and mobilizing role in all industrial struggles. The workers’ movement needs to start building the forces of democratic socialism. A socialist society would see the majority of the population – working people and their families – owning and managing industries and services, for the benefit of all. A socialist transformation of society is the only guarantee to end war and poverty.

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July 2008