The dreadful collapse of a scandalously neglected apartment block in Beirut’s Ashrafieh district last weekend that tragically took 27 lives has, not without reason, revived fears in Lebanon about the major earthquake fault-line upon which the capital city rests. But it’s with seismological concerns of quite another sort that I address my dear reader today.
On Saturday, the Qatari emir Hamad al-Thani, who has suddenly gone from being a provincial businessman and petro-monarch to a swaggering, headline-hungry regional statesman of apparently grand geopolitical ambition – and whose pearls of wisdom in recent weeks have included his advising Western nations to embrace Islamism – announced a proposal to send Arab League troops to Syria to “stop the killing” of civilians. While I am, as I’ve said before, not opposed to military intervention under certain conditions, Qatar is among the very last nations I would nominate to undertake the course of action (whether robed with an official Arab League mandate or not). This is for the very simple reason that, by taking the brazenly fascist step of sending its troops to Bahrain to help crush the protests there, Qatar has made clear that its motives in Syria may be anything except humanitarian and democratic. Indeed, that both the Bahraini regime and the majority of the Syrian opposition share a common religious denomination with al-Thani invites one to speculate about a rather different dynamic altogether.
It’s with this in mind that one ought to consider Saad Hariri’s endorsement of the Arab League proposal on Twitter. As the son of the assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, as well as an ex-PM himself and the current head of the Future Movement, Saad is one of the preeminent zu’ama, or chieftains, of the Lebanese Sunni community. The Lebanese Shia, on the other hand, are to a large extent represented by Hizbullah, a party which has by no means been reticent on the question of Bahrain, describing it as a “special injustice” and openly accusing the regime and its allies (such as Qatar) of sectarian bigotry (as I wrote here, this accusation is by no means unfounded). Lebanon is of course a tremendously fragmented society at the best of times, and though inter-communal coexistence of a sort does persist, its frayed and ragged fabric is always threatening to tear further: the recent past has seen the Salafi cleric Ahmad Al-Assir accuse the Shia of “insulting” the Prophet’s wife Aisha, while the Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah gave an overtly sectarian speech on Ashura, in which he compared the party’s enemies to the Umayyads who killed the Prophet’s grandson Hussein in the Battle of Karbala (the event which triggered the whole Sunni-Shia split to begin with).
Now, of course, the root cause of sectarianism is the very existence of sects in the first place, and all attempts to evade or deny this simple truth are doomed to fail from the outset. But I think it’s equally plain that what’s behind this recent fouling of the air is the question of Syria. It’s become very unfashionable to so much as mention religion in the same breath as the ‘Arab Spring’ – before you start, yes, thank you, I know that some of the regime’s bravest critics are Shia, while some of its most craven apologists are Sunni – but I for one find a few things difficult to ignore: the burning of Assad pictures and Hizbullah flags at a rally of thousands in the Lebanese Sunni stronghold of Tripoli (the only major city in the country to have witnessed such a spectacle); the vocal presence of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood on the front lines of the uprising; the sensationalist comparison of Assad to Hitler by the Sunni Islamist Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan; the lugubrious groans in support of the uprising from other sinister characters like the Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi (who naturally had rather different things to say about the protests in Bahrain); and the withdrawal by the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood (also known as Hamas) of administrative staff from its headquarters in Damascus. The regime probably has not targeted Sunnis in particular, but Syrian demographics are such that indiscriminate killing will by definition hit the Sunnis hardest, and this has dragged some of the more scrofulous elements of the Sunni world to the Syrian opposition, of which the Qatari dictator is only one example among many.
So what has Hariri done by signing his name to this plan? He has managed to undermine legitimate and democratic channels such as the UN while siding at the same time with the perpetrators of rabid and naked sectarianism and tribalism. He has also left Lebanon’s Sunnis at the mercy of a Hizbullah that is being squeezed as never before. History tells us that Hizbullah doesn’t much like being squeezed: recall, for example, their storming of Beirut in 2008 with guns and grenade launchers blazing – a bloody tremor that had many Lebanese fearing a return to the darkest of days. That time, the provocation was comparatively minor: an attempt by the Hariri government to shut down part of Hizbullah’s private telecommunication network. This time, with the party’s chief arms supplier at stake, the threat is almost existential (don’t forget that Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the Syrian National Council, said explicitly last month that if he replaced Bashar al-Assad he would end the relationship with Hizbullah). Combine these unprecedented political stakes with the sectarian metastasis outlined above, and the meeting of Qatari boots with Syrian soil could rip Lebanon apart. If this is to be averted, serious re-thinks of priorities and friendships will be required of both Hariri and Nasrallah.