A few days ago, two Lebanese politicians literally went at each other’s throats on national television. Setting aside a moment of personal glee - I like a good Lebanese smackdown every now and again (see Qifa Nabki for a list of the best) - the incident was both disappointing and extraordinarily dangerous. For that reason, in contrast to my usual pattern, I found the dust-up less funny with each viewing.
The two combatants, Future Movement official and former MP Mustafa Alloush and (Lebanese) Baath Party chief Fayez Shukur, surely realize how tense the situation is in Lebanon.
North Lebanon, where both politicians have ties and interests, stands on a knife’s edge. Tripoli, a Sunni stronghold that has traditionally drawn the Assad regime’s attention, has seen political drama between former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and local bosses like Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Economy Minister Mohammad Safadi. Hariri still resents Mikati and Safadi for what he considers to be opportunism, and one party source estimates that most of Tripoli – “maybe around 70 percent” – is still seething over the toppling of Hariri’s government in January.
Meanwhile, Sunnis and Alawites stare each other down from their respective strongholds in Bab el Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, where sporadically clashes have taken place for years. The rural area of Akkar, on the Syrian border, is no different. Since the Assad regime began its brutal crackdown on dissenters in Syria, a steady stream of Syrian refugees and possible Syrian Army defectors has strained North Lebanon’s already tenuous stability. And that’s to say nothing of Syrian military incursions into Lebanon.
Had Shukur and Alloush agreed to some sort of cage match, their spat could have played out as a praiseworthy attempt by elites to settle their own scores and diffuse street tensions. Indeed, I’d love nothing more than to have Lebanon’s various figureheads duke it out in a battle royale, winner take all!
But that’s fantasy. In the real world, these men brawled on a highly watched television show, at a time when many Lebanese are alarmingly prone to political violence. Both men are intelligent enough to appreciate the danger. So why fight?
According to one theory, the entire Shukur-Alloush debate – hotly contested from the outset - was a message from a Syrian regime that feels increasingly isolated and insecure. Obviously, this theory is more popular among March 14 partisans, though some Hizbullah and pro-Syrian party officials have ominously, if subtly, encouraged the notion.
As the U.N. reports, the Assad regime has killed at least 3500 people since protests began eight months ago. While such violent tactics have certainly exacted their toll, dissent continues. What’s more, reported army defections are on the rise and rebels may be arming themselves against the state security establishment.
So, the theory goes, the Syrians will pull the rug out from under the Lebanese. With unrest continuing, with the crusty Arab League showing a pulse, with Turkey increasingly less tolerant of instability on its southern flank, and with international pressure steadily ratcheting up, an increasingly desparate Assad regime may destabilize Lebanon to remind the world why it has survived for so long and demonstrate that it’s still needed.
First, sowing instability in Lebanon has been a convenient way for the Assads to amplify their strategic significance in the past (by starting the fire, then selling the water). Even if it’s too late for that gambit to work, the regime’s past experiences may give it false comfort. That’s dangerous enough. Second, the logic of retribution may take on a life of its own. One Sunni analyst in Beirut, who requested anonymity, believes “the Assad regime and its allies in Lebanon may lash out to settle scores, because they have no alternatives on their way out.” Third, and finally, pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon – not Hizbullah, but smaller parties like the Baath, the mostly Alawite Arab Democratic Party, and the Syrian Socialist National Party – may use violence to preserve their political space at a moment of great uncertainty. In this last sense, the parties may be resigned to the fact that the Assad regime will eventually collapse; the key will be preserving their own interests in the aftermath.
As a political junkie, these theories appeal to my need to find an explanation for everything. But, sometimes, it may just be a pride thing (I had planned to linger on this issue, but Our Man in Beirut cleared it up rather nicely!). People are foolish, and often lose their tempers. It’s not as if the Lebanese are known for their measured reserve! And, at the end of the day, there’s room for extensive theories and simple explanations to overlap. The fight itself might have unfolded in the heat of the moment, but the entire show had seen both men verbally jabbing at each other.
“Interesting times in our part of the world,” said the analyst, who happens to be a good friend. “Let’s talk tomorrow, unless we’ve got bigger things to worry about by then.” The alarmism, I take it, was contrived. Yet, the last thing the Lebanese need is more violence.