The dramatic events that have unfolded in the recent period in Lebanon have hidden a very important development. As Hezbollah moved into West Beirut they successfully cut across a general strike over wages that was planned for the same day. As the workers were coming together to fight for their common interests, Hezbollah pushed its own agenda, thereby heightening ethnic tension.
The bourgeois media has been talking of civil war in Lebanon. Clashes between Hezbollah guerrillas and government forces have dominated headlines internationally. The media has largely focussed on the growing power struggle between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, attributing the cause of the recent unrest to the government's decision to attempt to close down a Hezbollah communications network, and sack a Hezbollah sympathiser. What has been conveniently forgotten is that the initial spark for this unrest was in fact a proposed strike by the main trade unions demanding an increase in the Lebanese minimum wage.
Lebanese Marxist Kamal Farran discusses the roots of the unions' demands, and the damaging role Hezbollah have actually played in hijacking the movement for their own political ends. Kamal adds a note of pessimism at the end ("Lebanon faces dark days") which we can understand given the current situation, but we believe it ignores the potential impact for workers' struggles throughout the Middle East, particularly in Egypt.
Also, the Lebanese Communist Party will likely play a role in future developments, as it is the only party with genuine roots in the working class of Lebanon, despite the leadership's sell-out to Hezbollah. Nonetheless, his description of the problems of sectarianism is spot on, and we feel the article gives an excellent picture of the challenges faced by those in Lebanon trying to build genuine Marxism. [Introductory note by Luke Wilson]
On Wednesday, May 7, 2008, the Lebanese people were expecting a general strike. Workers were expected to go onto the streets demanding an increase in the minimum wage among other demands. Although the government had taken a decision a couple of day before the strike to increase the minimum wage from 300,000 LL (200$) to 500,000 LL (333$), the unions were demanding an increase of the minimum wage to 900,000 LL (600$).
Rising food and oil prices and the prices of other important commodities have made the already meagre wages of the workers insufficient to provide for the most basic needs. The government was too reluctant to increase the minimum wage since it is mainly composed of the Future Movement, a bourgeois party which caters for the interests of the Lebanese elite and that doesn't care about the workers. The government also includes the Progressive Socialist Party, which has forgotten what the meaning of progressivism and socialism is, and has adopted the same economic policies of the Future Movement. The government also includes some other parties that have the interests of the elite as their main concern.
So May 7 was supposed to be a day on which the workers would show their force and demand their rights. Instead it turned into the first of several bloody days that are still rocking Beirut and the rest of the country. So what happened?
Starting in the early hours of the morning, opposition groups led by Hezbollah hijacked the worker's movement to push their own agenda in Lebanon. Hezbollah was protesting against two decisions taken by the government that it saw as a threat to its security.
The first decision was directed against a communication network established by Hezbollah that trespasses the public network. The second was directed against the chief of security in the airport, who is considered close to the opposition and who has ignored the presence of a camera belonging to Hezbollah directed at the airport. Hezbollah thus exploited the general strike to protest against those decisions by closing the major roads leading into Beirut.
The first casualty was the working class itself. Workers were not able not reach the location where the unions' demonstration was to set off from and so it was cancelled. The second casualty was Lebanon's security. Clashes broke out in the streets of Beirut between pro-government gangs and opposition gangs. Having more weapons, the opposition could swiftly control most of West Beirut in a battle where even RPGs were used. The third and most serious casualty was Lebanon's future.
Since the predominantly Sunni West Beirut came under the control of the Shiite Hezbollah group, different parties used this event to increase the sectarian divide in the country. Suddenly, ethnic sentiments started rising on both sides of the divide. Shiites were portrayed as violent militias attacking peaceful Sunnis, while Sunnis were portrayed as Western agents aiming to destroy the Lebanese resistance. Facebook groups revealed the deep sectarian feelings that blinded people from the fact that they have common interests and focused instead on the sectarian differences with insults exchanged between different groups. The actions of Hezbollah in Beirut were a major contributing factor to the rise of these sectarian feelings.
Tensions were already high between the Sunni and Shiite communities and their actions just added fuel to the fire. The government's decisions are not a genuine excuse to undermine the security of the country. Hezbollah could have simply refused to abide by those decisions (if they really undermined its security) since it has the power to prevent the Lebanese army from dismantling its communications network. Many believe that the intervention of Hezbollah was simply aimed at increasing its bargaining chips in the political crisis that has been rocking Lebanon since 2005.
Hezbollah and the rest of the opposition have no economic alternative for Lebanon. In fact they have repeatedly stated that their problem is with the parties governing and not with their policies. They consider the governing parties to be corrupt ‑ which is true ‑ but conveniently cover up the fact that they themselves are also corrupt. A major opposition party, Amal, has the exact same economic policy and is involved in the same level of corruption as the Future Movement, while Hezbollah's economic policy is a populist one that would very quickly become openly pro-capitalist as soon as they gain power. The plight of the Iranian workers shows very clearly the such systems offer no alternative to the deprived classes (the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran can be considered as Hezbollah's Godfather).
Amid all this chaos, the workers were forgotten, their economic demands silenced and the workers' movement has become more divided than ever with pro and anti government unions. None of the parties battling in the streets have any solution for the workers' plight. They only care about their own interests and plans. The Lebanese masses should turn against all the sectarian, chauvinist and bourgeois parties who not only cause economic hardship, but who consciously turn the Lebanese against each other so that they stay in their place, while the elite at the top can advance their plans and projects at the expense of people's security.
Lebanon is facing dark days. Even after the current battles end and the different parties sit down and talk, they would most surely agree on continuing to divide and rule the Lebanese masses. Each party would get its own slice of the cake, and in the future more conflicts would arise. The confessional system of Lebanon can never rid itself of ethnic conflict and aimless wars, precisely because it thrives on them.
Unless people focus on their common interest in overthrowing all the political class and present an alternative that really has the people's well being as the main goal, war after war will continue to rock Lebanon. Unless the left stops tail-ending this or that bourgeois party or the fundamentalists, the Lebanese masses will continue to count their dead.
Lebanon, May 13, 2008
- Socialist Appeal interviews student activist in Beirut by Luke Wilson (September 12, 2007)