It can be hard to understand what is happening in Lebanon, especially the violent clashes that broke-out over the past week.  If you’re like most Americans (myself included) you probably know little to nothing about the social, political, and religious divides that exist there, let alone where they originate from.  Before I started poking around on the internet this morning (Sunday) in hopes of getting a cursory idea of who is fighting over what, my “knowledge” of Lebanon came down to a few facts which I had gathered in passing over the years:  There are four generally (though not entirely) segregated ethnic/religious populations in Lebanon- Shi’a, Sunni, Christian, and secularists; the government in power is weak, divided, and generally Western/U.S.-backed; Hezbollah is a political organization of Shi’a Muslims, largely backed by Iran, who enjoy wide-spread support (especially outside of Beirut) particularly for their highly successful social programs, providing for the needs of the people where the government has failed to do so.

So as you can see, my knowledge of the country did not run deep by any definition.  But while I most certainly do not support religious/fundamentalist insurrections, anywhere in the world, something just wasn’t sitting right with me as I read Western accounts of the recent violence.  More so than perhaps any other Arab nation, Lebanon has a fairly solid population of militant working class radicals- a number of whom are revolutionary socialists and anarchists in fact.  In first reading accounts of the violence in Beirut over the past week, I was a bit confused by reports of a “general strike” (indicating class-antagonisms at work) that went hand-in-hand with reports of “pro government” Sunni’s battling “anti government”, Hezbollah-backed forces.  Images of the violence showed black clothes and scarves covering the faces of people who used burning tires and other urban materials to set-up road blockades: these are not the tactics of a well-armed and well-funded militant/political organization- these are insurrectionary tactics of far left radicals.  At this point I thought to myself: are the revolutionary-left in Lebanon supporters/members of a militant Islamic group?  My inclination was no, but I figured I’d try and find out, best I could.

As it turns out, the answer to that last question is both yes and no.  On May 7th, the General Labor Union of Lebanon staged a general strike to protest a failure by the government to raise minimum wages in light of rising food and commodity prices.  These were the militants who were in the streets, burning tires and erecting barricades with their faces hidden under the cover of black scarves and clothes (a la the black bloc).  Now, the militants in the Lebanese labor movement who took part in this general strike come from all corners of society: some secular, some Christian, some Sunni, and some Shiite.  Remember: class oppression knows no religious or ethnic divide (unless intently enforced by the State, i.e., apartheid).  So yes, some of those participating in the general strike were supporters and even members of Hezbollah.

Now I’m going to back-up for a minute, because to truly get a sense of how and why this situation ended up being characterized in the Western media as “anti-government Hezbollah” versus “pro-government Sunni’s”, and to understand how it turned into what some are calling the worst-sectarian violence since the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), we need to begin at the very least with the events of the day before, and even back to the Israeli-Lebanese War of 2006 and before.

On the morning of May 6th, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora fired the head of security at Beirut International Airport, claiming he was a Hezbollah sympathizer and alleging he had secretly placed cameras in the airport that were thought to be capable of monitoring government official’s actions.  This theory was quickly dismantled, as the head of a private construction company, Qassim Allaq, indicated that his company had installed the cameras- nearly 20 years ago!  He was a bit befuddled that their existence would warrant the firing of the airports head of security, since no objections had ever been raised of the cameras previously.  The containers hiding the cameras, and the land on which they are located are all owned by the private construction company.

Simultaneously to all this, the U.S.-backed Cabinet declared the Hezbollah maintained telecommunications network that runs throughout the country to be “illegal and unconstitutional” and that it poses a threat to national security.  It’s worth noting two things: first, since the resignation of five Shi’a Cabinet ministers in November of 2006 the government itself is unconstitutional and illegal, since there is a constitutional requirement that all major religious sects in the country be represented in the Cabinet; second that this telecommunications network is largely seen as one of the key pieces of infrastructure that allowed Hezbollah to hold the Israeli army at bay during their War of July 2006. Independent Arab journalist Rannie Amiri has this account (emphasis mine):

On May 8th, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah held a rare press conference via video link to respond to the allegations against Hezbollah, (airport head of security) Shukair’s termination, the alleged illegality of the group’s communications network and the crisis at hand.

He said, “Our communication network is a regular telephone network, and is the most important weapon in any resistance. In the July War, our strongest point was control because communication between leadership and field battles was secure, and this was confessed by the enemy … this is how we ensured success. (Our network) is related to defending the country against Israel.”

So in reality what we have here is a U.S.-backed government attempting to dismantle the infrastructure of Lebanon in hopes of weakening the militant political currents which oppose its presence and the designs of the U.S.’ sister-State, Israel.  More so than being an “anti-government terrorist group” that is seeking to spread a holy war across the region (as the situation reads in the Western press) there is a political and social opposition that is pleading for democracy, elections, and the rule of law.  While the government (and Western media) have described the violence of the general strike to be a “coup attempt”, none of the facts support this.  Hezbollah Secretary-General Nasrallah said it clear enough on Thursday: “If we wanted to stage a coup, you would have woken up this morning in prison, or in the middle of the sea. We do not want that. It is a political issue, with a political solution through early elections.”

I’ll let journalist Rannie Amiri put the final touches on this picture for you:

Although this conflict is often couched in sectarian terms—Sunni versus Shiite—this is just window dressing. It instead involves issues of legitimate political representation and the desire of those who oppose U.S. and Israeli designs on the region to no longer be marginalized.

The opposition is pushing for a power-sharing agreement with the ruling coalition, one in which its ministers may wield veto power over cabinet decisions. This seems reasonable, in light of the actions of a prime minister who cut deals with the Israelis while they were killing and maiming his country’s citizens. This demand has become the primary obstacle in electing a new president and establishing a functional government in Lebanon.

Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League this week. It is these countries – all monarchies or dictatorships – that feel most threatened by Lebanon’s crisis. The root of their fear is embodied in Nasrallah’s statement (quoted above) calling for a political solution: accountability of the government, a check on its actions, and elections. All are anathema to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah of Jordan and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, lest their own people should one day make similar demands.

More good reporting can be read about this: here, here, or here