Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Pragmatics of Lebanon's Politics

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Pragmatics of Lebanon's Politics

Article excerpt

Lebanese society has had a remarkable ability to overcome deep-rooted sectarian and religious divides that could readily have imploded less problematic countries. This has been largely due to its pragmatic political system, which avoids acting upon polarizing issues on principle, opting instead for pragmatic loopholes. Given their confessional political system, Lebanese are conditioned to think pragmatically even when the issue at hand is divisive and does not lend itself to resolution. In Lebanon, pragmatism is a necessity and not an option as failure to accommodate other sects might ruin the country's delicate fabric.

Three vivid illustrations of this dynamic can be seen in the handling of the issues preoccupying Lebanese decision-makers these days: Hezbollah's continued militarization, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), and the Syrian connection.


Most non-Shiite Lebanese find it difficult to accept Hezbollah's armament and have not missed an opportunity to express displeasure with the fact that, while the 1989 Ta'if agreement calledfor the demilitarization of all Lebanese militias, Hezbollah was exempted on the grounds that it was resisting Israel's presence in southern Lebanon. As much as they disapprove of Hezbollah's behavior, Lebanese find it politically correct to praise its "resistance." The proveib "kiss the hand you cannot bite" seems to fit the way many Lebanese view the militant Islamist group.

Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that Hezbollah's military buildup and its rivals' intensifying demand for its disarmament have been the most divisive issue since Israel's withdrawal from its security zone in south Lebanon in May 2000. This demand for disarmament gained considerable momentum after the July 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war as the eviction of Hezbollah from its bases south of the Litani River and the deployment of the Lebanese army in its place led critics to question the need for the group's continued militarization.

Thus, for example, the pro-Hariri member of parliament (MP) Ahmad Fatfat argued that Hezbollah's primary concern had shifted from confronting Israel to controlling Lebanon "and transforming it into a forward base on the Mediterraneanfor Iran."1 His parliamentary peer Sami Jemayyil compared "Hezbollah's expansionist behavior in Lebanon" to that of the Zionists while fonner Lebanese president Amin Jemayyil noted that "Hezbollah seems preoccupied these days with controlling the site of the Lebanese government in Beirut and the Special Tribunal's location in [the] Hague."2 Addressing his supporters on the sixth anniversary of the March 14 coalition, former prime minister Saad Hariri criticized "the supremacy of [Hezbollah's] arms and the manner in which it is influencing the formation of the country's forthcoming cabinet [of Najib Miqati]."3

Even Nabih Bern, speaker of parliament and leader of the Shiite Amai movement - who showered Hezbollah with praise and defended its right to resist "the Israeli occupation" as "nonnegoüable"4 - was paraphrased by a released WiMleaks cable as having privately said that "he supported Israeli military action against Hezbollah in 2006 as long as it did not backfire and create more public support for the party."5

It makes eminent sense for Bern to wish the demise of Hezbollah, whose rise to prominence among Lebanese Shiites came at Amal's expense. This does not seem to be the case with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has perfected the shadowy art of doublespeak, rejecting Hezbollah's use of arms for domestic purposes while refusing "to expose Lebanon to Israeli aggression."6 Jumblatt won notoriety for continuously vacillating from one political camp to another. His ambivalent statement above suggests that he does not preclude the possibility of returning to the March 14 coalition should Hezbollah's fortunes wane.

But most surprising and perplexing was the change of heart of Bishara Boutros Rai since his appointment as Maronite patriarch in Match 20 1 1 . …

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