Hazem Saghieh

On the Lebanese Discussion of Change and Weapons: Naivety Is Not the Only Alternative to Stupidity

Who Remembers the Decades that Preceded the Two Years War (1975- 1976) in Lebanon?

The forces calling for political and social change at the time were neither few nor unpopular, regardless of the sort of change they were advocating. Those forces left the shell of a single sect and region. That was the case for the Lebanese Communist Party and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which maintained a presence, albeit unevenly, among all sects and regions.

Other groups calling for an end to sectarianism and its political regime that addressed individuals and groups across sectarian lines also emerged in the pre-civil war period. The Democratic Party and the Awareness Movement, for example, fall into this category. Even a very Christian party, the Lebanese Kataeb (Phalangist) Party, saw the emergence of a “youth wing” or “the Kataeb left,” which also called for overcoming sectarianism and reforming the political system through development.

These aspirations were not alien to the developmentalist bent of Chehabism, which left behind figures who continued to advocate it and see it as the weapon through which sectarianism could be done away with and reform could be realized. Many clubs in both cities and rural areas, intellectuals, an array of cultural initiatives, and some social figures were also part of this wave.

The Lebanon that existed before the Two Years War broke out, which we constantly scorn - and some of that scorn is perhaps warranted, could nonetheless contain all of that.

What happened after 1975-1976? Some of these phenomena disappeared, while others contracted. Increasing numbers returned to their sects and regions of origin. The parties described as secular and non-sectarian began their journey to extinction. Many of those calling for change and stunned by sectarianism and the war lost hope and migrated.

The reason for this is simple: weapons, the primary source for renewing sectarian awareness, expanding its scope, and reinforcing its effectiveness: fear of the other and triggering distant memories of this fear accompanied forced displacement and ethnic cleansing, arbitrary shelling, and slaughter on the basis of identity… All of that repelled anti-sectarian sentiments and left the forces that believe in or defend these sentiments besieged.

The cruel irony of this painful experience was personified by those who carried arms or called for carrying them as they called for political and social change. But at the end of the day, they are the ones who changed, becoming micro forces. Thereafter, falling under the wing of this or that security agency became imperative for staying alive. Their trajectory was akin to suicide.

Why bring this experience up today, especially after the latest parliamentary elections? Because many with good intentions want to discuss change and paths to it without discussing arms.

The latest elections, which followed a peaceful revolution, a crushing economic collapse, and a blast of almost nuclear proportions at the port of Beirut, brought to parliament reformist youths who neither entered politics through their sect nor aim to empower their sect over others through it .

That is all generally positive, though it is far less than one would expect after such massive developments.

Still, two remarks are warranted. First, the “law of the Two Years War,” so to speak, still applies; that is, weapons remain the biggest manufacturer of renewing sectarian consciousness and sharpening it. Second, arms' capacity for disrupting politics and elections is incomparably greater than politics and elections’ capacity for disrupting weapons.

This means that in the end, sectarian affiliation determining political allegiances can transform the demand for change itself into a sectarian demand, as happened in 2005 when calls for dismantling of the security regime, an investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and the expulsion of the Syrian army from Lebanon were transformed into sectarian demands.

The fact is that we can forget about the arsenal, but the arsenal cannot forget us. Hezbollah’s position is quite understandable: It cannot but seek cover from democratic institutions that reject arms in principle, one that transcends politics and popular will. The party has no choice but to resist the focus shifting to civil and social reform.

Indeed, what the Secretary-General of Hezbollah said recently about the country having coexisted “with the weapon of the resistance for 40 years” is simply untrue. This was a bitter coexistence that came with heavy human and economic costs, paralysis of the state and constitutional institutions, and minor and major wars in the south and east that preceded and followed July 2006.

It also created a disparity among the Lebanese in terms of the degree of power they feel they wield and the rights they feel they enjoy, which were clearly reflected in May 2008. It also established a parallel state, culture and values and fractured the country’s foreign relations, both Arab and international.

Change and arms will always contradict one another, a fact that Hezbollah knows very well, as it consistently proves that it is more intelligent and aware than its supporters with a leftist background demanding that it support reform or concern itself with economic and social issues.

That, however, obviously does not imply support for suicidal idiotic decisions like facing weapons with weapons. Nonetheless, pacifist naivety should not be the only alternative to suicidal idiocy.