Seven people were killed on 27 January as the Lebanese army clashed with rioters in southern Beirut in the wake of a Shia demonstration. The incident has drawn the army into Lebanon’s political crisis, which has seen three months of impasse as parties close to PM Fouad Siniora squabble with Syrian-backed parties such as Amal and Hezbollah over the election of a new president.
The 27 January demonstration in Mar Makhaeil was called to protest about the chronic power cuts which take place in predominantly Shia districts of the Lebanese capital. The army attempted to break up the demonstration, shooting dead an Amal activist and provoking a riot which continued late into the night. As news of the shooting spread, more and more people joined in the protest, with some rioters torching cars and firing back at the troops. In nearby Ain Roummaneh, where civil war broke out in 1975, a hand grenade wounded seven people.
Troops had already taken to the streets that week in response to a general strike called by transport and agricultural unions, called in response to the rising cost of living and high fuel prices. Although the union leaderships claimed that the strike had little to do with the Amal-Hezbollah political opposition, it was clear that the pro-Western versus pro-Syrian divide had everything to do with the observance of the strike. Roads were closed and stacks of tyres were set ablaze in Shia areas where support for Hezbollah is strong, such as south Beirut, southern Lebanon and the northeastern parts of the Bekaa Valley, while there was little sign of the strike in cities such as Sidon and Tripoli where the government has stronger backing.
Communalist pro-Syrian parties such as the Islamist Hezbollah and Amal have nothing to do with a workers’ movement which organises the working class as a class to fight for democracy and liberation. Recognising the power of strike action to undermine the government, these parties seek to mislead workers, using them as a battering ram to achieve their own sectarian goals and give weight to their drive to take up posts in the government. Yet in the wake of the general strike Socialist Worker meaninglessly claimed that “among supporters of the opposition there is a frustration that the mass demonstrations that brought two million on to the streets before Christmas were not enough to topple the government, and that more radical action is necessary”, failing to pose the questions of precisely who the opposition is and what radical action might constitute.
However, it is clear that Hezbollah’s ability to mobilise workers behind their cause is related to the genuine economic and political grievances which much of the population experience, and even beside plainly bourgeois non-sectarian allies (such as the Free Patriotic Movement), we can see the Lebanese Communist Party lining up with Hezbollah. The Lebanese CP’s website (www.lcparty.org, in French) points out that the price index has risen by 37.4% in the eighteen months since the war with Israel, while one third of Lebanese families live on the minimum wage (frozen for the last ten years) of £100 a month. Many working class areas, in particular Shia districts, lie in darkness due to the constant power cuts.
The Lebanese Communist Party’s response is uncritical support for Hezbollah and participation in the opposition, despite the fact that this is almost entirely composed of plainly bourgeois parties, many of them Shia sectarians who opposed the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country. It has absolutely no independent working-class perspectives, and thus facilitates Hezbollah’s moves to mislead the unions and workers.
It is precisely this failure – the lack of a secular left which unites workers across sectarian divides – which has led to a political situation where US allies battle with Islamists to dominate Lebanon. Strike action, although at this point badly misled and harnessed for the aims of the far-right Hezbollah movement, has however given a glimpse of what kind of power a workers’ movement could have in Lebanese society. In order to build such a force, the central challenge is the fight for a democratic and secular labour movement and independent political leadership for the working class.