Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Political Isolation of Lebanese Sunnis

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Political Isolation of Lebanese Sunnis

Article excerpt

The delicate fabric that is the Lebanon polity, only recently rewoven after decades of civil war, is once again on the verge of unraveling. Recent events - between the ascendance of Shiite groups through the February 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri to the current Syrian civil war - have caught one of the most prominent sectarian groups, the Sunnis, unprepared. How this has come about is a convoluted tale of jockeying for power between rival politicians and ethnicities.

SUNNI ENFEEBLEMENT

It is ironic that Lebanon's Sunni population, long ascendant in that region and identified with the governing powers since the days of the Umayyads (c. 661 CE.) and through the Ottoman period (ending in 1918), has virtually been bereft of communal autonomy Sunnis became junior partners in ruling Lebanon with the Christian Maronite population after independence in 1943. But the rise to power of Hafiz alAssad and his Alawite relations in neighboring Syria in 1970 brought marginalization of the Sunni majority there, which quickly spilled over to affect Lebanese Sunnis as well. The eviction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (secular though largely Sunni in religious background) from Lebanon in 1982 then left them vulnerable to the emerging Shiite power block as well as to resurging Maronites.

Shiites made their forceful entry into the Lebanese political system in the name of resisting Israeli occupation. They built up their forces in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley and have managed to keep the national army outside their areas of influence. But the Jewish state has not been the only target of their violence and machinations. Shiite and Druze militiamen eliminated the rival Sunni al-Murabitun militia in 1985. Then in 1989, the outspoken Sunni grand mufti Hassan Khalid was assassinated. However, this was neither the first - nor would it be the last - political murder to roil the Sunni community.

Beginning with the assassination in 1951 of Riad as-Sulh, a prominent Sunni politician and cofounder of independent Lebanon, Sunnis searched for leadership outside the territorial boundaries of the fledging state. The appointment of Rafiq Hariri as prime minister in 1 992 got their hopes up for making it back to the center stage of Lebanese politics. Hariri came into office with strong Saudi backing and French blessing and was determined to resurrect the 1943 MaroniteSunni "gentlemen's agreement" for governing Lebanon. His rise to power coincided with the political mobilization of Shiites into two major groups with the Amai movement implementing the schemes of the Syrian regime while Hezbollah submitted itself to the dictates of Iran's supreme leader.

Hariri presumed he could integrate the Shiite community in his accommodationist project for Lebanon. While he managed to win the trust of many Maronites, his success in collaborating with Amai depended on maintaining a working relationship with a hard-to-please regime in Damascus. Moreover, his ability to enlist the cooperation of Hezbollah proved futile because the latter had an opposing vision for Lebanon. In 2005, Hariri paid with his life for promoting a project that, if successful, would have undermined Syrian hegemony in Lebanon and blunted Iranian determination to become a greater regional player. Hariri's assassination amounted to a political coup, removing Lebanon from the camp of Arab moderate states and advancing the interests of the Syrian-Iranian axis.

THE MARCH 14 COALITION'S UNFULFILLED PROMISE

Hariri's assassination ignited the Cedar Revolution which, in turn, inspired the formation of the March 14 Coalition that drew from the mostly Sunni Muslim Future Trend party, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party, Maronite Christian Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces (LF), and the largely Maronite Phalangists associated with the Gemayel family. Shortly afterward, the Syrian army exited Lebanon. In June of that year, the coalition won a majority of seats in the parliament and Fuad Seniora formed a new cabinet that promised to prosecute Hariri's assassins. …

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