Lebanon celebrates army victory but unity remains elusive

Balint Szlanko reports from Beirut on the army’s victory over Fatah el-Islam and the prospect of transforming cross-party support into unity.

THE Lebanese Army’s victory on Sunday over Fatah el-Islam, the Islamist group in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared, has boosted the army’s respect in a country where all other institutions are seen as serving one of the myriad political factions or religious sects.

It is unclear, however, whether the army’s success after nearly four months of fighting will contribute much to the resolution of Lebanon’s severe political crisis that has practically shut down the government and has led to an unstable security situation with outbreaks of violence.

It is equally questionable whether Fatah el-Islam’s destruction has fully eliminated the Islamist threat in this country where the state is almost paralysed, radical and well-armed organisations are running unchecked, and extremist ideologies abound, especially in the vast Palestinian refugee camps.

At least 319 people, half of them army troops, were killed during the intense fighting that started on May 20 when Fatah el-Islam attacked an army position outside the northern city of Tripoli. During the ensuing fighting, 30,000 Palestinians fled the camp that was reduced to ruins by shelling and aerial bombardment.

The crisis was Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war. It is not fully clear what Fatah el-Islam’s aims were but the group has been linked to al-Qaida and Syrian intelligence.

The fight ended on Sunday after the extremists made a desperate attempt to escape the camp but were successfully beaten back and killed.

Prime Minister Fouad Saniora was quick to praise the army’s victory.

“It is the greatest national victory for Lebanon over the terrorists in Nahr el-Bared. It is a great success that the Lebanese army has achieved over the terrorists, those who sought chaos, destruction and tragedies for Lebanon,” he said according to the Associated Press.

Residents of Tripoli showered rice on soldiers outside what remained of the refugee camp on Sunday. In Beirut, cars were honking on the streets and people were waving the flag of the Lebanese army as well as the national flag.

“We’re happy. The Palestinians have brought nothing but their tragedy to this country,” said one smiling resident in Christian east Beirut.

The crisis has practically shut down the government and led to bloody street battles earlier this year. The country has also seen a string of car bombings and other attacks, killing six United Nations peacekeepers and many pro-government politicians. Much of the economy is at a standstill.

The army, however, has so far been unclaimed by the factional rivalries. All parties have expressed support for its battle against

Fatah el-Islam and for the way it has tried to impose security and deal with the many difficult situations throughout the political crisis.

Even Hezbollah, thought to be militarily far superior, backed down after initially issuing a warning to the army not to enter the refugee camp in its fight against the extremists. The Shi’ite organisation has also been supportive of the army’s deployment in South Lebanon, a region Hezbollah was forced to evacuate militarily after last year’s war against Israel.

On the other hand, the army’s elevated standing may not be enough to bring Lebanon’s factions together. “First of all, it wasn’t a real win. It took them nearly four months to eliminate a band of militants. I would call it a massacre on both sides,” said

Dr Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

“Second, it matters little what the army achieves as long as the political elite is so divided. Ultimately, what matters is what the sectarian leaders tell their own constituents. Third, the leader of the army has made a lot of enemies by openly using the fight to further his own presidential ambitions,” Dr Khashan said.

On August 31, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a politician allied with the opposition, threatened to name an interim government if the opposing camps failed to agree on a consensus candidate to succeed him in November. The government, Lahoud said, would be led by army commander-in-chief General Michel Suleiman.

The government majority condemned Lahoud’s proposal, saying it would lead to the emergence of two rival governments. Suleiman has not said if he would accept the appointment.

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