Sunday, January 12, 2014

What is March 14's new "civil resistance"?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Coalition launches new campaign to “liberate” Lebanon from Hezbollah’s arms, but some supporters remain skeptical.

At the funeral of slain former ambassador and March 14 minister Mohamad Chatah in Downtown Beirut on 29 December, a leader of the anti-Damascus bloc and former close colleague of Chatah’s declared the birth of a new chapter in the coalition’s nine-year-long campaign to rid the country of Syrian influence.

“We have decided to embrace civil resistance,” said Future parliamentary bloc leader and former prime minister MP Fouad Siniora. “O martyr Mohamad Chatah, [Lebanon] after your assassination will not be the same as before it.”

The phrase “civil resistance” – a jab at March 14’s arch-rival, Hezbollah, which styles itself on its flag as “the Islamic resistance” – has since become the official name of the coalition’s new campaign, which will seek to combine grassroots activism, measures at the domestic parliamentary level, and lobbying of the international community to “liberate” the country, in Siniora’s words, from “illegitimate arms.”

“It is a non-traditional way to say no to the illegal arms in Lebanon,” said Fares Soueid, head of the March 14 General Secretariat. “We tried all the traditional channels between 2005 and 2012: the dialogue table; the national coalition government; the Doha Agreement. After our failure to reach any agreement or compromise with Hezbollah concerning the building of the state […] we are shifting to civil resistance,” he told NOW.

What this will mean in terms of specific policy measures and actions is yet to be finalized. The only step confirmed by Soueid to NOW was a total suspension of ties with Hezbollah, the party-cum-militia implicitly blamed by Future Movement leader MP Saad Hariri for the assassination of Chatah on 27 December.

“We are not going to make the same mistake as the European Union, of dividing Hezbollah into a political and military branch. For us, there is only one Hezbollah, which works in politics with a gun in its hands.”

Beyond this, another likely component, according to Soueid, will be an effort to leverage March 14’s international relationships in order to pass a new UN Security Council resolution to “assure the neutrality of Lebanon” with respect to ongoing turmoil in the region – particularly the Syrian conflict, in which Hezbollah is a significant paramilitary participant, and to which Chatah’s assassination has been linked by various analysts.

The coalition may also decide to once again boycott parliament, said Soueid, as they did for several months following the October 2012 assassination of police intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan. Mass street demonstrations might also be organized. “These are all [options] in our hands,” Soueid told NOW.

Asked how long the campaign would last, Soueid implied it was open-ended.

“We are talking about civil resistance. It’s not like a medical prescription, it’s a process. So we are going to begin slowly, but surely, and we are going to win.”

The launch of the campaign has been met with mixed reactions from March 14 activists at the grassroots level. Some are enthusiastic, spreading the word on social media – dedicated Facebook and Twitter pages have been created – and even spray-painting graffiti in support.

“There’s always more that can be done, but actually this time, we are doing our maximum,” said Karim Rifai, a March 14 activist prominent on the ground. “We consider that we are mobilizing people for the last sprint,” he told NOW.

“It’s the only way out of what we’re in,” said Walid Fakhreddine, head of the March 14-aligned Democratic Left Movement. “It’s a serious campaign, and more is yet to come, but nothing is going to be made public beforehand. In the upcoming two or three days, there will be announcements of further actions.”

Others, however, took a less hopeful view, questioning the campaign’s strategic clarity and the coalition’s commitment to seeing it through to fruition.

“Until now, I don’t think they were able to translate ‘civil resistance’ into anything tangible,” said Sara Assaf, another longtime grassroots March 14 activist. “I think the problem is it’s just a slogan that was launched, and then as usual they will not really translate it into any efficient action on the ground.”

Moreover, Assaf queried the sincerity of the campaign, in light of recent reports that March 14 is contemplating forming a new cabinet in partnership with Hezbollah after all.

“You cannot come and launch a slogan like ‘civil resistance’ and say you took a major decision to ‘liberate Lebanon from the occupation of illegitimate weapons,’ as Siniora said, and then days later start bargaining on a government with Hezbollah. It doesn’t make sense […] This would be covering Hezbollah in its sectarian war in Syria, at a time when the Special Tribunal for Lebanon [trial] is due to start,” Assaf added.

“The contradiction here is huge and it’s very disappointing for people like me and many others in the March 14 public.”

Other still are doubtful that the “liberation” envisaged by Siniora is possible at all, in the face of powerful international obstacles.

“The title is big, and it’s a very nice title, but so far it’s just that,” said Mustafa Fahs, a political analyst sympathetic to March 14’s broader goals. “Circumstances today are very difficult, and go way beyond this title.”

“There is a regional conflict today, and we in Lebanon are merely tiny details in it.”

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