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JUNE 2008


Lebanon’s short, sharp conflict

Less isn’t more WALTER DAHN – ‘Nightmare’ (1984)

Employees at all levels are worried about the cost of food; low-paid workers and the old are reduced to sifting through supermarket rejects: the problem of purchasing power is destroying the credibility of governments everywhere. In France, Italy and Britain, the parties in power have been soundly defeated in local elections. In the United States, the Republican Party has lost three of its traditional strongholds since March, in elections for seats in Congress. It had held one for 33 years, another for 22 years, while the outgoing candidate in the third polled 66% of the vote in the previous election. Life is getting harder for most people. In Italy and Spain, they blame the euro. But the cost of food in Britain is 15% higher than a year ago. In the US, the price of eggs has risen by 30% in the past year, milk and tomatoes by 15%, rice, pasta and bread by 12%. Rising accommodation costs and energy bills make matters worse. Renewed growth, if and when it happens, will not solve the problem. Former US treasury secretary, Lawrence Summers, recently reversed the famous 1953 dictum, “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country”, admitting that there was “a growing recognition by workers that what was good for the global economy and its business champions was not necessarily good for them”. The reason for this volte-face? “A decoupling of the interests of business and nations may be inevitable” (1). Inevitable, but not unexpected. Stagnation or a decline in purchasing power was the natural result of political choices taken after a war on workers, in the good cause of increasing competitiveness and reducing the cost of labour. Economist Alain Cotta recalls that, with the end of index-linked wages in France in 1982, “the Socialists did private enterprise the biggest favour it had ever had from the public authorities”. Jacques Delors, minister of finance at the time, was delighted: “We have got rid of indexlinking without a strike” (2). Has Europe learned a

lesson? German workers went on strike in March, British teachers in April, Greek lorry-drivers and French fishermen in May. For those who can’t or won’t see that the source of the current problems over living standards (3) is a decline in earned income as a proportion of national wealth, there are plenty of alternative solutions available. More supermarkets, as Sarkozy suggests, to “increase competition between distributors”. More “sacrifices”, so that increases in the price of food and energy will be absorbed by wage-earners. This would help the European Central Bank to achieve its great objective (2% inflation) and improve the purchasing power of its wealthy customers. As for the rest, they can make a little go a long way and “eat well without spending too much”, like the miser in Molièère’s play. That is what Robert Rochefort, director of the centre for research on living conditions (Créédoc), suggests: “Consumers must learn to optimise their budgets. They are already quite good at doing this. But they must learn not to complain, to accept the fact that purchasing power is gradually becoming a more qualitative concept, a power to decide between different items of expenditure, a power to choose one’s purchases” (4). A sociologist agrees: “There is a range of tariffs for telephone calls. This also applies to rent: one can always find somewhere cheaper to live” (5). Work longer, live less well. It is clear where we are going, unless we follow a 40-year-old precedent and decide to call a halt. SERGE HALIMI TRANSLATED BY BARBARA WILSON (1) Lawrence Summers, “A strategy to promote healthy globalisation”, Financial Times, London, 5 May 2008. (2) See Jean Lacouture and Patrick Rotman, Mitterrand, le roman du pouvoir, Seuil, Paris, 2000. (3) When the 2000-2007 period of growth came to an end, the income of 50% of US families was less than it had been seven years before, a situation without precedent. (4) Challenges, Paris, 6 December 2007. (5) Géérard Mermet, Les Echos , Paris, 21 April 2008.


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An unexplained decision by the Lebanese government last month to challenge Hizbullah over its military capabilities provoked a Hizbullah-led alliance of militias to defeat those of the prime minister and a Sunni party. With the election of a new president,Michel Suleiman,the fighting ended, but Hizbullah’s participation in government is a blow for the US


The Masnaa border crossing has recently reopened. The militias who had blocked all traffic in and out of Syria have gone and the army has moved in, a sign that tensions are easing after last month’s fighting in Lebanon. The road, which plunges down the mountain towards Beirut, is usually choked with chaotic traffic between the countries, but the situation hasn’t yet returned to normal, so you can drive to the Lebanese capital in under an hour. Though everyone I spoke to agrees on the sequence of events, their interpretations differ. On 6 May, after 12 hours’ deliberation, Lebanon’s government passed two decrees: one to establish an inquiry into Hizbullah’s private communications network (“illegal, illegitimate, an aggression against the sovereignty of the state”) and the other to transfer Beirut airport’s head of security, Wafiq Shuqair, a Shia general, who is said to have close links to the opposition. The authorities decided to internationalise the crisis and bring the details of “this new aggression against the rule of law in Lebanon” before the Arab League and the United Nations. The decision was condemned by the opposition, whose main players (in the Shia community) are Hizbullah, the political and military movement backed by Iran and Syria, and Amal, led by Nabih Berri, and (in the Christian community) the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by the Maronite general Michel Aoun. On 8 May Hizbullah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, denounced this “declaration of war on the resistance” at a press conference. At the same time Hizbullah militia, along with those of Amal and the secular Syrian Social National Party (SSNP), took control of predominantly Sunni west Beirut. The airport and the port were blockaded. After brief fighting, the militias of Saad Hariri’s Future Movement (a Sunni party) and the prime minister, Fouad Siniora, surrendered. There were confrontations in other regions in which 70 people were killed before a fragile peace was restored. The government rescinded its two decrees. The militias withdrew in favour of the army, which had remained neutral, and the politicians. On 17 May, under the auspices of the emir of Qatar and the Arab League, negotiations began between government and opposition in the Qatari capital, Doha, with the aim of preventing Lebanon splitting in two. The government side represented the majority of Sunnis and Druze, as well as a minority of Christians. The opposition spoke for most of Lebanon’s Shia and a good half of the Christians, a fact which western

media often overlook, portraying Hizbullah as the only opposition. On 21 May an agreement made provision for Michel Suleiman, the former army chief, to be elected to the presidency (on 25 May; the position had been vacant since November 2007), the creation of a government of national unity, and a new electoral law which will come into effect for next spring’s elections. For the moment, finding a solution to the highly sensitive problem of Hizbullah’s arms has been postponed. There are many questions but no clear answers. Why did the government pass the two decrees; why did Hizbullah and its allies take direct action; why didn’t the army get involved; why didn’t the US and the European Union intervene? And what is the scope of the Doha agreement? “Hizbullah claimed that it would never turn its arms on the Lebanese people. They said they were aimed only at Israel,” a pro-government journalist told me. “Now we know they were lying.” The argument that Hizbullah is no more than a militia and doesn’t constitute resistance to Israel and the US is regularly voiced by all government leaders and their friends in the media. But Ali Fayyad, a senior member of Hizbullah’s executive committee, says: “The conflict is not about domestic politics. Our military communication system was a decisive factor in our victory over Israel in July-August 2006. We cannot accept it being dismantled. That would effectively mean disarmament. On the other hand, we have never used force of arms to impose our views internally, to change the government or obtain changes to the electoral system.” What he didn’t say was that Hizbullah seized its chance to resolve a crisis which has been festering for 18 months, paralysing the country and exasperating its supporters. The formation of a national unity government furthers their aims, since Hizbullah isn’t seeking a central role in government, but the creation of a context favourable to its core mission: resistance to Israel and US plans for the region. Siniora and his allies knew that Hizbullah’s arms represented a line not to be crossed. So why did they cross it, despite many warnings from officers from the Internal Security Forces (ISF), which is loyal to the government (1)? Waleed Jumblatt, the progovernment leader of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, who brought the charge against Hizbullah’s telecommunications, and Saad Hariri, head of the Sunni Future Movement, “miscalculated in not believing that Hizbullah would respond militarily”, according to a government analyst. “They hoped that

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