Lebanon’s Rivals See What They Want

by Michael Young, author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle

Although Hizbollah and Iran hailed the ouster of the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as a political defeat for their enemies, it is not at all certain that Sunnis in some parts of the Arab world, particularly in Lebanon, were distressed by the transformations in Cairo.

Iran’s satisfaction, and that of its Arab followers, derived from a short-term appraisal that Mr Mubarak’s departure was a setback for the United States. However, nothing yet indicates that Washington has “lost” Egypt. In fact, America’s regional role may be strengthened if its Arab friends become more democratic, or just more pluralistic. After all, the protests in Tunisia and Egypt confirmed the deep detestation for – and therefore the fragility of – an American-led network of regional alliances resting on a foundation of despotism.

For many Arabs, the Sunni majority especially, developments in Egypt produced an electric moment for other reasons. Much of the reaction was related to perceptions rather than reality, since the final outcome in Cairo remains to be seen. However, a wave of optimism swept throughout the Middle East when Mr. Mubarak stepped down because here, it seemed, was a genuinely new morning for the Arabs, another sign, after Tunisia, of freshness and life in a desiccated wasteland of authoritarianism. And this time it was occurring in the land that had once best embodied Arab post-colonial confidence, under the Arab nationalist regime of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Mr. Nasser’s failings were irrelevant. Egypt re-entered the powerful realm of political allegory, the popular overthrow of the Mubarak regime providing grist for a narrative of Arab democratic renaissance. Interpretations could vary depending on which Arab state one lived in, but it is probably fair to say that many Arabs viewed matters, at least partly, in sectarian terms: this was not only Egypt’s moment; not only a moment of affirmation for a new and liberated Arab man (or woman); it was also a moment of reaffirmation for a wider Sunni community that had steadily seen its regional vigor decline in the presence of a Shiite Iran and pro-Iranian groups that have borrowed effectively the symbols of Arab nationalism, hitherto Sunni symbols.

This sense of Arab rejuvenation may cut in inconsistent directions. Arab mistrust of the United States might grow, but ultimately the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts were a demand to be part of the modern world, not to be isolated from it. Gone are the binary choices of the Cold War years. And in such a fluid political environment it is difficult to imagine net winners and losers in a future Middle East, not least if international actors adopt new ways of interacting with Arab regimes less able to enforce the stifling paternalism of the past.

Lebanon, where regional dynamics often play out with the greatest impact, provides a useful illustration of the paradoxes released by events in Egypt. Mr Mubarak’s exit was greeted with celebratory gunfire in Beirut’s southern suburbs, controlled by Hizbollah. Yet the party’s main rival, the Sunni Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, seemed no less energized. Egypt has apparently become whatever one wants it to be. Hizbollah may have seen a setback for the Obama administration; but Mr. Hariri saw a victory against the rule of the gun, which this week in a speech on the sixth anniversary of the assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri, he turned against Hizbollah, which had deployed its weapons to intimidate Lebanon’s Sunnis.

Continue article via The National

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