#71 - From Afghanistan and Iraq to Lebanon and Syria, Western aggression cannot bring "democracy", it can only stoke more powder kegs

April 2005


Two years after the invasion of Iraq, the statements issued by western governments over the past months assert that a "democratic" wave is now engulfing the Middle East. According to the likes of Blair and Bush, this is not only the result of astute diplomacy on their part but, above all, thanks to their military machines. The "war on terrorism" and overthrow of the Taleban in Afghanistan are supposed to have succeeded in terrorising the terrorists. The humiliating downfall of Saddam Hussein is said to have given the population of the Middle East the confidence to shake off the yoke of their local dictators. Or so the official story goes.

Of course, this is a tale that fits in nicely with the rest of western leaders' propaganda. They still have to get public opinion to swallow not only these wars and the lies used to justify them, but also the body bags which come back from their killing fields and the gruesome images of the mass slaughter inflicted on the populations of the targeted countries. The political careers of these western leaders may well depend on their ability to produce some positive results to offset the resentment generated by their criminal policies.

The imperialist powers never wage war without some sort of virtuous cover, which allows them to portray their looting of the world as a legitimate crusade. Since Bush used the 9/11 attacks to launch his "war on terrorism", Washington and London have used a long list of justifications for their crimes: the rights of Afghan women, the search for "weapons of mass destruction", the need for "regime change" against dictators such as Saddam Hussein and now, bringing "democracy" to the populations of the region.

This is in no way different from the Cold War days when the West was masquerading its anti-communist drive as a "free world" crusade. In those days too, the imperialist armies were supposed to be paving the way for "democracy" by "liberating" the populations of North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc.. from the "communist stranglehold". But, this turned out to be the democracy of the cemetery. As was shown by a recent survey conducted in Vietnam, large numbers of people, including newborn children, are still dying today from contamination with the defoliant "Agent Orange", a weapon of mass destruction invented and produced by US giant Monsanto. "Agent Orange" was indeed very "democratic": it affected everyone in the areas where it was sprayed, regardless of class and age, killing many and leaving the survivors severely incapacitated and their children with birth defects.

Today, for all their talk about "democracy", the imperialist leaders have no more concern for the populations than they had at the time of the Cold War. These populations have had no say whatsoever in the events hailed lately in Washington and London as "democratic upheavals". But, as we shall see, the Western governments' "democratic" fairy tale is not just one more lie. It also conceals the explosive potential that their criminal policy threatens to unleash in the Middle East - a potential already illustrated by the two years of bloody chaos caused in Iraq by the US-British invasion.

"Democracy" is whatever serves imperialist interests

So what are these "democratic" upheavals celebrated by Western leaders?

The first of the series apparently took place in Libya. In late 2003, Blair and Bush announced triumphantly that they had secured a commitment from Libyan dictator, colonel Gaddafi, to terminate his WMD programme and declare his stockpile of chemical weapons to UN inspectors. Not that Libya ever had the industrial and technological means to embark on a WMD programme. But why care about such minor details?

The important point, as commentators insisted at the time, was that Gaddafi's concessions were a direct by-product of the new situation created in the Middle East by the invasion of Iraq and the "war on terrorism". Moreover they were supposed to mark the first step towards political freedom in Libya. So overnight, the Libyan dictatorship had ceased to be the "rogue" regime it used to be on the West's blacklist and Gaddafi had acquired unexpected "democratic" credentials.

To date, however, the Libyan population has not seen any sign of political freedom. Judging from the reports of human rights organisations, the regime remains as ruthlessly repressive as ever. By contrast, the big western oil majors unquestionably have a lot more freedom to plunder Libya's large oil resources than they had before.

In fact, the hypocrisy of the whole Libyan affair is illustrated by the fact that back in 2001, while Libya was still the target of British and US sanctions following the Lockerbie bombing, Shell quietly moved in and opened an office in the Libyan capital. Occidental Petroleum, a US giant which used to be one of the biggest players in Libya before the sanctions were announced by the US Congress, followed suit shortly afterwards, even though Bush was still thundering against Gaddafi for his alleged involvement in the "axis of terror".

And guess what? The two largest oil exploration and production contracts awarded by Gaddafi's regime since the beginning of 2004 have gone to Shell and Occidental, while their main rival bidders, the Italian ENI and the Spanish Repsol, which have been operating in the country continuously for decades, got peanuts! The Shell contract, which was signed in March last year, was agreed at the precise moment when Blair was paying a high profile visit to Gaddafi, thereby signalling his readmission into the imperialist womb - but, of course, this was pure coincidence!

The "democratic" nature of a regime, as seen by London and Washington, has obviously more to do with the amount of profit that the western companies, which they represent, can squeeze out of the resources it controls than with the rights of the population.

Afghanistan's warlords and electoral farce

Where local dictatorships have been overthrown as a direct result of imperialist intervention, the new political institutions introduced under the auspices of the west may be given a "democratic" cloak but they are, in reality, war machines against the populations.

Although on the margins of the Middle East, the case of Afghanistan is worth recalling given the loud noises made about the west's "democratic" achievements there. London and Washington hailed last October's presidential election as Afghanistan's "return to democracy". In fact, this election was an outright farce. Only one candidate - the US puppet Hamid Karzai - had access to the media. The number of registered voters exceeded the number of potential voters in parts of the country and votes were bought on a large scale under the watchful eye of armed militias. Predictably, Karzai was elected, but this result has nothing to do with "democracy".

More importantly, what sort of regime rules Afghanistan today? Its president, Karzai, has a pedigree which speaks for itself. Originally Karzai was an anti-communist warlord and his extended family still runs an area along the Pakistani border as a feudal fiefdom. Politically, he has been an associate of the Taleban regime, for which he acted as a UN envoy, before getting involved with RAND, a US think-tank doing contract research for the Pentagon and being head-hunted by the oil company Unocal as an adviser on Central Asian affairs.

Karzai's regime is an unstable coalition of warlords who have been co-opted into government under US auspices. So, for instance, the chief of staff of the new US and British-equipped Afghan army, is one of Karzai's most powerful rivals - general Dostum, who controls most of the north-western part of the country and was partly responsible for the virtual destruction of the capital in the first half of the 1990s. In fact, outside of a small area surrounding the capital, the whole country remains controlled by rival warlords, most of whom do not recognise the authority of Karzai's regime. And were it not for the continuing presence of nearly 30,000 western troops, this regime would probably not last very long.

As to the Afghani population, it is caught in the cross fire between Karzai's reactionary Islamic Republic, the exactions of dissident warlords and the occasional bombings of the occupation forces. Moreover, due to the parasitism of the warlords and the absence of any effort to rebuild the country's destroyed infrastructure and economy, it is sliding into increasingly abject poverty.

As far as Blair and Bush are concerned, however, they have what they wanted - a pliable regime in a strategic area at the interface between Iran, the Central Asian republics and western Asia. And the cost they have to pay for this is comparatively low, both politically, given the low level of US and British casualties and financially, since they need to maintain some form of military presence in the country anyway, in order to be able to use its strategic position.

That the inherent instability of the Afghan regime, its parasitism and inability to provide for the needs of the population could very well result in its implosion, involving unpredictable regional consequences, is at best considered a minor long-term liability by Karzai's western minders. What matters to them is that in the short term, the so-called "democracy" of the Afghan warlords is capable of keeping the country's population under control!

Iraq's bloody parliamentary conundrum

A similar process has been unfolding in Iraq, but against a backdrop of resistance to the western occupation which has achieved a much higher level of organisation.

There too, the general election held on January 30th was hailed as a new "democratic" dawn - on the basis of voting figures that no-one can check nor believe. Never mind the fact that following the Fallujah massacre, this election was boycotted in most of central and north-western Iraq, particularly by the Sunni minority, the country's second largest minority. Never mind either, that it took place under the threat of western tanks and terrorist bombings. The election was at least made to appear "democratic" even if at great cost. This was enough for officials in London and Washington to celebrate the great day in which the Iraqi people had at last been able to exercise their "democratic" rights - thanks to the Western invasion of their country, of course!

But what "democratic" rights? The right to starve in desperate poverty and absolute social chaos, while most of the reconstruction funds flowing into the country end up either in the pockets of US and British contractors or in military infrastructure? The right to survive on food rations - for those who are lucky enough still to receive them - without a job, amidst constant power failures and chronic fuel shortages, while speculators are making a killing under the nose, if not with the complicity, of the occupation forces?

As to the election itself, what choice did it offer? The main slates had no specific political platforms and none of them dared openly to criticise the occupation. Although they all claimed to represent the whole Iraqi population, they actually defined themselves in religious or ethnic terms. Voters were faced with only one of two possible choices: either they "wasted" their ballot by voting for one the few non-sectarian slates, which stood no chance of having anyone elected, or else they voted for politicians whose sole programme was to promote the interests of one section of the population against the others.

In the end, predictably, the United Iraqi Alliance list, which is dominated by the two largest religious Shia parties, topped the poll, followed by the Kurdish list formed by the two main Kurdish nationalist groups. Since then, protracted negotiations have taken place between the two front runners over the allocation of the top positions in the new governmental institutions, the timetable for the autonomous status of Kurdistan and the future of the various militias - which involve tens of thousands of armed men both on the Shia and Kurdish sides. With little result so far. In fact, after more than two months of horse-trading, the main protagonists have only just managed to agree on the names of a president, two vice-presidents, a prime minister and a speaker for the new assembly. Nothing else has been done so far!

Meanwhile, contrary to western leaders' predictions, the security situation has remained just as bad as before the election for the population - to the point that a large part of Baghdad had to be closed off during the only sitting of the National Assembly so far.

In fact, the lines of tension, which had been temporarily blurred by the need to form electoral alliances, are now re-emerging. The United Iraqi Alliance is threatening to fragment, because some of its components are opposed to making any concessions to the Kurdish parties' nationalist claims, while others are dissatisfied with the Alliance-sponsored prime minister, the leader of the Islamic Daawa party. Among the dissenting factions is the National Bloc, a faction close to the radical fundamentalist cleric Moqtadah al-Sadr, which seems to have a substantial following among the poorest layers of the Shia population in large towns such as Baghdad, Najaf and Basra.

Moreover, now that the national election is out of the way, regional strong men are coming out of the woodwork in the hope of taking advantage of the current provisions for the setting up of autonomous regions. In addition to the Kurds' claim to an autonomous status, there are now at least two other regional bodies which have launched a similar claim - one based around Basra and the other around Najaf. To these centrifugal forces one should add, of course, the Sunni religious parties which, having boycotted the election, are now busy denouncing the sidelining of the Sunni minority and presenting themselves as its only legitimate voice.

The only result of this so-called "democratic" process initiated by western leaders to appease domestic public opinion, will have been to increase the stakes in the rivalry between the factions which have been propelled to the forefront of the political scene by the invasion of Iraq.

Given the fact that most of these factions are armed or allied with armed groups, there is a real danger that their rivalries will turn into open confrontation at some stage. Coming in addition to the on-going and, more often than not, blind terrorist warfare carried out against the occupation forces and their Iraqi auxiliaries, this would mean even more victims among the Iraqi population itself and, potentially, the risk of the situation developing into outright civil war.

Palestine: the "Roadmap" to hell

In Palestine as well, western leaders have boasted of a "democratic" breakthrough.

In March 2003, Arafat came under heavy pressure from the US and Britain. It was at this time that Blair was boasting of his decisive role in getting Bush to focus on backing a peaceful resolution to the Palestinian question. But in fact, what both Blair and Bush were after was a new Palestinian partner who would be more conciliatory towards their demands. For this they needed someone who did not enjoy the prestige of a Yasser Arafat. Their choice was Mahmud Abbas, a so-called "moderate" in the PLO leadership, but above all a relatively unknown figure among the Palestinians, except for the fact that he had negotiated and signed the much despised Oslo Agreement.

After the invasion of Iraq had begun, Arafat probably felt he had no choice but to bow to this pressure. In April, Abbas was appointed prime minister of the Palestinian Authority and Bush released his "roadmap" for a "permanent two-state solution". The first phase of this roadmap required that the new Abbas government should stop the attacks carried out against Israel by Palestinian factions and confiscate all illegal weapons. In return Israel was supposed to end its policy of retaliation, stop all new settlements planned in the Palestinian territories and, eventually, withdraw from the West Bank areas occupied since October 2000. This was, at best, returning to the system of Palestinian bantustans resulting from the Oslo agreement, as if the second Intifada had never taken place.

Predictably, Sharon's Israeli government was never blamed for its deliberate failure to stick to its side of the deal. But the Palestinian Authority was held responsible for every bomb and every bullet hitting a target in Israel. Bush's and Blair's "Roadmap" turned out to be just another way of pretending that they were doing something to resolve the Palestinian question while, in fact, they were only posturing.

When Arafat died at the end of last year, the western powers grabbed the opportunity. They put pressure on the Palestinian Authority to hold a presidential election to replace him, hoping that by getting himself elected, Mahmud Abbas would acquire a new legitimacy. The PLO leadership, which was apparently determined not to antagonise its western partners, sidelined Abbas' rivals, including some who had more credit among Palestinian voters and Abbas was chosen as its only candidate. As Hamas, the PLO's only serious potential rival, had decided to stay out of the race and to call for a boycott, the result of this election, held in January, was a foregone conclusion. This did not prevent the ballot from being rigged from beginning to end, to the extent that 46 members of the Central Electoral Commission, including its president, resigned in protest while the voting was taking place. Despite this extensive fraud, the turnout was only 50%. And although Abbas easily won the vote, with 60% of the poll, in fact only 30% of registered voters voted for him.

This latest electoral farce did not prevent London and Washington from, once again, hailing another step forward for "democracy" in the Middle East. But, in fact, far from reinforcing Abbas' legitimacy, this election has provided fundamentalist currents like Hamas and Islamic Jihad with a new axe to grind, which they can be expected to use in their power struggle with the PLO. Despite Abbas' election, the PLO itself is in a weaker position today. It should be remembered that this motley alliance of political and armed factions was largely held together by Arafat's personal prestige and the backing he managed to get from Arab countries. Now that Arafat is gone, Abbas' electoral manoeuvring and concessions to western and Israeli diktats can only exacerbate tensions and rivalries within the PLO, possibly to the point of implosion.

In the end, ironically, the efforts of the imperialist powers to propel their protégé to prominence through this "democratic" farce could leave them with Hamas as their only possible partner - because once the PLO is gone or terminally discredited, Hamas will be the only political current with enough influence on the ground to impose any kind of settlement with Israel on the Palestinian population.

Lebanon - explosions in the streets

In February this year, the stage of the west's "democratic" crusade suddenly shifted to Lebanon. On 14 February Rafiq Hariri, a Lebanese businessmen who had been prime minister in five governments, was killed in what appeared to be a suicide bombing in central Beirut, together with 17 others, including most of his bodyguards.

Immediately, Western capitals seized the opportunity to point an accusing finger towards Syrian president Bashar Assad. Washington withdrew its ambassador from Lebanon and western governments demanded that Syria should immediately withdraw its 15,000 troops stationed in Lebanon more or less ever since the civil war of the 1970s, in compliance with UN Security Council resolution 1559 adopted in September last year.

In anticipation of possible troubles in a climate which was already heavily loaded, the pro-Syrian president Emil Lahoud and his prime minister Omar Karame declared three days of national mourning in memory of the dead tycoon. Opposition parties immediately tried to go one better by calling for a 3-day general strike.

On 16 February, an estimated 150,000 turned up to Hariri's funeral in central Beirut. The funeral soon turned into an anti-Syrian rally, calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and the resignation of both the prime minister and the president. Participants included a wide political spectrum, from the far-right Christian militias of the Lebanese Forces and Free Patriotic Movement, to the centre-left Progressive Socialist Party and the Movement for a Democratic Left, an organisation which split from the Lebanese Communist Party four years ago. The next day a similar, although smaller demonstration took place in the northern town of Tripoli. But, this time, supporters of the government took to the streets as well. They were attacked by the police and one 22-year old was shot.

The following week saw a continuous stream of demonstrators staging rallies, sit-ins and marches in central Beirut. There seems to have been a sense of euphoria among them, particularly among the youth, a sense that maybe something was about to change at last on the stifling scene of Lebanon's corrupt politics. What was ironical was that these expectations should have been generated by the outcry caused by Hariri's murder - when Hariri had been, if anything, the very symbol of this corruption while in office!

Faced with this increasingly volatile situation in the streets of Lebanon, the Syrian regime chose to act swiftly in order to take the heat off the pro-Syrian Lebanese government. On 24 February, the Lebanese Defence minister announced that Syria had agreed to discuss

the withdrawal of its troops to the Bekaa Valley, in the border region between the two countries. Bolstered by this announcement, the opposition called for a one-day general strike to take place on 28 February, the day when the Lebanese parliament was to debate a motion of no-confidence. As the local correspondent of the journal Middle East International noted, "in a rare show of activism, Lebanese business leaders announced a lock-out for the same day, to add their voices to the demand that Karame's government should step down." By the end of that day, Karame had resigned his position, not out of fear of a no-confidence vote, which he was certain to win, but to ease the pressure from the streets.

The nature of the "Cedar Revolution"

It was on that day that the US State Department issued a press release describing the events in Lebanon as a "Cedar Revolution". This was an obvious attempt to draw a parallel with the so-called "orange revolution" in Ukraine. Within hours, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was remarking that the events "are moving in a very important direction. The Lebanese people are starting to express their aspirations for democracy. This is something that we support very much."

However, Rice did not express the same enthusiasm for the Lebanese people expressing their aspirations when, on 8 March, Hizbollah and other Shia groups flooded the streets of Beirut in an unprecedented show of strength, to protest against western meddling in Lebanon's affairs and express their support for the Palestinian cause. And even less when, four days later, Hizbollah reasserted its hegemony on southern Lebanon by staging a similarly impressive demonstration in the small town of Nabatiya.

In the meantime, events had been moving fast. Bashar Assad and Emil Lahoud had agreed on a timetable for a two-phase withdrawal plan of Syrian troops, which started immediately. At the same time, due to the opposition's inability to come to an agreement over the name of a new prime minister, Omar Karame was reinstated as prime minister, until the general election due to be held before the coming summer.

Nevertheless, following Hizbollah's show of strength in the streets, the mainstream and far-right opposition were determined to have the last word. So a last anti-Syrian demonstration - at least for the time being - was called on 15 March.

Those who compared the last anti-Syrian and anti-western demonstrations in Beirut noted that the most striking difference between them was one of class. The anti-western demonstrators were poorly dressed and came on foot from the town's southern and western poor suburbs. By contrast, many of the anti-Syrian marchers came in private cars or in coaches financed by the so-called Future Movement, which is the political vehicle of the Hariri business and family clique. Thousands of these demonstrators wore trendy red-and-white vests, part of a promotion campaign which is said to be the brainchild of Thatcherite firm, Saatchi and Saatchi.

It is probably true that a broad spectrum of the Lebanese population would rather see the back of the Syrian soldiers and security forces. Nevertheless, the so-called "Cedar Revolution", with its designer touch and abundant funding, expresses primarily the aspirations of the propertied classes. Whereas the anti-western marches express the feelings and frustration of the impoverished masses, unfortunately behind the banners of their worst enemies, whether the fundamentalist Hizbollah or the pro-Syrian government itself.

It is in the nature of terrorist attacks that it is nigh impossible to know for sure who is behind them. In the case of Hariri's murder, it is obvious that whoever did it had significant military and intelligence resources at their disposal. Most western commentators have accused the Syrian regime on the grounds that Hariri was the most likely challenger to Lahoud's and Karame's pro-Syrian regime. But they conveniently forget that Hariri was for many years the prime minister of pro-Syrian governments and actually made quite a lot of profit out of it. So why should he necessarily be considered an enemy by Assad's regime? In fact there are many interested parties which could have chosen to get rid of Hariri, for various reasons. It could be one of the Syrian military factions which have been sidelined by Assad, with the aim of putting him in a difficult position. It could be the Israeli secret service Mossad, which has a long record of using such methods in Lebanon. Or it could be a business rival, since most big Lebanese businessmen have links with some armed militias. Or else, it could be the militia of one of the opposition parties, which would have killed two birds with one stone, by getting rid of a prominent rival while sparking off a political crisis against the current government. The odds are that no-one will ever know the truth. But, in fact, who did it is not the real issue.

Rather, the real issue is the way in which all Lebanese political forces are now trying to take advantage of the crisis to play their own cards, with the vocal backing of western governments. Lebanon has long been a powder keg. It has already exploded before, in the 1970s and 80s and the price paid by its population as a result, has been exorbitant. Today, the situation may be different from the 1970s, but the basic ingredients of the powder keg are still there. And there is every reason to fear that the "democratic" meddling of the imperialist powers - as they strive to strengthen their grip over Lebanon and Syria, using their traditional "divide and rule" methods - could lead to another explosion.

The colonial legacy

Outside Palestine itself, the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s has been the most dramatic example of the consequences of imperialist interference in the Middle-East. At the same time, its outcome still shapes the political landscape in this part of the Middle East. For these reasons, it is worth going into some detail as to the causes of this war and its consequences.

In this latest Lebanese crisis, the imperialist powers have been unusually united in their response. Indeed, unlike over the questions of Iraq and Palestine, France has lined up with the US, using even harsher words than Bush himself. Contrary to what most of the media has argued, this is not just due to the fact that Hariri was a close friend of French president Chirac, nor that he was a big contributor to Chirac's illegal election fund. Rather, it is due to the fact that, so far, French imperialism has continued to consider Lebanon and Syria as part of its backyard. And the French state is determined to keep it that way, if it can, despite Bush's attempt at playing the role of arbiter.

France's colonial presence in Lebanon goes back to 1860, when emperor Napoleon 3rd organised a military expedition in order to protect the members of a Christian sect based on Mount Lebanon, known as the Maronites, against the Druze - adherents of a local Muslim creed. Already France had secured the endorsement of Europe's main powers to carry out this "peace-keeping" mission. Thereafter, Mount Lebanon became an autonomous territory carved out of the Ottoman empire, but a de facto French colony.

When the Ottoman empire finally collapsed after WWI and the Middle East was shared out between France and Britain, under a scheme sponsored by the forerunner of the United Nations, London and Paris used every dirty trick in the book in order to increase their respective shares of the cake. In the end, France took control of the area comprising today's Lebanon and Syria.

Prior to the collapse of the Ottoman empire, with the exception of the tiny autonomous enclave of Mount Lebanon, Iran and British-occupied Egypt, the whole of the Middle East had been an area free of any kind of borders. People and goods could travel freely from the Egyptian border in the west to the tip of the Arabic peninsula in the South or the Iran-Iraq border in the East. Once the imperialist powers established their control over the area, however, this freedom was over. Borders were drawn artificially to separate the spheres of influence of the two main rival powers and they themselves, drew more artificial borders within their own backyards, either to facilitate their plundering of local resources or to make it easier to control the populations, or both.

This is how today's Lebanon emerged artificially as a tiny separate entity carved out of Syria, half the size of Wales. The main purpose for this separation was to provide an hinterland for the Christian-dominated Mount Lebanon with a built-in Christian majority. The artificial border caused a lot of damage, by splitting populations like the Druze, in particular, and depriving farmers on the Syrian side of vital water supplies. This was to be the cause of a number of uprisings both in Syria and in Lebanon, which were ruthlessly suppressed by the French army in the 1920s and 30s.

The Christian capitalist class, it was thought in Paris, would prove a reliable ally and Lebanon would provide French companies with a valuable trading post with the rest of the Middle-East. But Lebanon was by no means homogeneous. Even its Christian majority comprised many sects. And the 45% of its population who were not Christians included a large Muslim section comprising Sunni, Shia and Druze, as well as Armenians of various creeds. The coexistence of these different groups would have been possible and indeed, had been possible under the Ottoman Empire, simply because religious freedom was largely respected. However, this changed completely under France's domination, since its policy consisted precisely in granting privileges to the Christians in exchange for their loyalty, thereby building up tensions between the various components of Lebanon's society.

In order to entrench the Christians' domination, the French colonial administration concocted a constitution which guaranteed their control over the institutions regardless of future demographic changes. This religious make-up has remained to date. Religious affiliation must be mentioned on ID papers and CVs. All political institutions, down to constituency seats, are formed along religious lines. So, for instance, the Lebanese constitution still provides that the president must be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the parliament's speaker a Shia.

The making of a powder keg

World War II resulted in a redistribution of the spheres of influence across the former colonial empires. With the support of the US, Britain put pressure on France to relinquish its mandate over Lebanon and Syria. But the decisive factor in forcing French troops out was the series of uprisings and general strikes which broke out in the two countries. Finally, in 1946, Syria and Lebanon became independent.

This, however, did not change much in the relationship between French imperialism and the two countries. Syria remained part of the French backyard until it was engulfed by the pan-Arabist wave which swept the Middle East after Nasser's challenge to the imperialist powers over the Suez Canal in 1956. By the early 1960s, after a long series of military coups, in which the long arm of Paris always seemed to play a role, the Syrian Baath party came to power - a position which it has retained to this day. Hafez al-Assad, father of today's president, took over control in 1966 and embarked on a policy of manoeuvres, always sailing close to the wind, so as to preserve Syria's privileged line of communication with Paris, while trying to be recognised by the US as a regional power and at the same time making the most of the USSR's military and financial aid.

Nevertheless this policy did not and could not pull Syria out of the state of utter poverty in which it had been left after the colonial days. And the efforts of the dictatorship to rationalise agriculture and develop oil production, if they helped to eradicate starvation among the population, failed to lift its standard of living. "Democracy" remained a luxury that the tiny Syrian privileged class could not afford. In that sense, Assad's brutal military dictatorship was primarily a legacy of the French occupation of the country.

Lebanon, by contrast, had already become an affluent trading and banking centre before WWII. But from the end of the 1950s, Lebanon's trading and financial importance soared with the rush for oil in the Middle East. It became a favourite destination for western capital seeking to make profits out of the oil boom and for Arab capital seeking to invest in the west. Lebanon was one of the main outlets through which the oil producing countries bought western goods with their oil royalties. In short it became both the "Switzerland of the Middle East", as the journalists of the time nicknamed it, and a sort of Hong Kong for the region, trading an enormous volume of goods to and from Europe.

But, in the midst of this explosion of wealth, which turned the Lebanese capitalist class into one of the richest, if not the richest in the region, the sectarian set-up inherited from the colonial days of the 1920s remained in place. This institutionalised quasi-feudal relations within Lebanon's society. Religious leaders were given a built-in role of arbiters, while the landowning families were able to muster political leverage because of their ability to control the rural population living on their land. Patronage within religious communities remained an essential part of Lebanese social life and political struggles remained confined to power struggles between rival clans. In fact, political labels meant little or nothing. So, for instance, the so-called Progressive Socialist Party, the Lebanese section of the Socialist International, was and remains the political vehicle of a Druze feudal dynasty, the Jumblatts, which has proved willing to make alliances with the devil and his grandmother, regardless of their politics.

By the same token, the strong men of these religious-based rival clans, who knew fully well that they could not rely on the loyalty of the army and police, whose recruitment was multi-confessional, got into the habit of maintaining their own militias.

Next to this explosion of affluence of the Lebanese wealthy, which made central Beirut and the main urban seafronts look like California, there was the town's so-called "poverty belt" - a long series of shanty towns and Palestinian refugee camps which surrounded the capital, with hundreds of thousands of mostly Arab inhabitants who had no share whatsoever in this arrogant affluence.

In that sense, in addition to being a religious powder keg, Lebanon was also a social powder keg waiting to explode. And this explosion finally came in 1975.

The steam under the lid

In fact, the conflict had been simmering beneath the surface since the summer of 1973, when a far-right Christian organisation - Pierre Gemayel's Phalangists - had began to organise and train themselves for battle. Gemayel argued demagogically that the so-called sovereignty of the Lebanon was at stake, threatened by the swelling of the Muslim population by Palestinian refugees, especially because of the armed resistance groups which existed within their ranks. The Phalange's response was to use this pretext to mobilise its forces.

The Palestinian population in the Lebanon had indeed grown in this period - to around 350,000. First, as a result of the 1967 Six-day war between Israel and the Arab states and then the Black September massacre in Jordan in 1970, when many of the expelled PLO cadres also arrived in Lebanon, including Yasser Arafat. More refugees arrived after the so-called Yom Kippur War of October 1973 - when Syria attempted to retake the Golan Heights from Israel. Most of the Palestinians - but particularly the refugees from 1948 - lived in Southern Lebanon. But newer camps had established themselves around urban areas like Tyre, Sidon, Tripoli and, most importantly, West Beirut, next to the slums where the poorest layers of the Lebanese population lived.

The Phalangists sought to whip up fears among the Christian minority that the Palestinian presence could put its institutional domination at risk. But beyond this demagogy, their aim was, above all, to confront the threat that the concentration of the dispossessed together with the Palestinians' radicalisation represented for the existing social order.

And indeed, there was a natural solidarity between the dispossessed Palestinians and the deprived Lebanese. Even if the policy of certain PLO leaders, and Yasser Arafat in particular, was to explicitly avoid any intervention in the "internal affairs of a fraternal state", as he repeatedly declared.

Nevertheless unprecedented demonstrations and fierce protests by the poor sections of the Lebanese population had been breaking out from early 1973 onwards. These were undoubtedly aided and politicised by the Palestinian resistance as well as the Lebanese militant organisations, mainly of pan-Arabist persuasion, which existed long before the advent of the Palestinians. The demonstrators mocked the impotence of the official Lebanese army which consistently failed to oppose the frequent incursions of Israeli forces into Southern Lebanon, even when the Israeli army destroyed whole villages on the pretext that they were sheltering PLO guerillas. The targets of these Israeli reprisals were usually poor Lebanese Muslim peasants.

In December 1974, despite or because of its reputation, the Lebanese army decided to make a show of force - not against the Israelis, but against what it termed the Tripoli mafia - which were code words for the Arab nationalist and Palestinian organisations which had established themselves in Lebanon's second city. The leaders of these groups were imprisoned. Encouraged by this, the Lebanese military decided to take on the no-go area of Sidon - also a stronghold of anti-government forces. The opportunity came when, on the 1 March 1975 a demonstration by local fishermen took place against the attempt by a Maronite fishing consortium to enforce its monopoly against them. The Lebanese army shot at the demonstrators, killing the town's pan- Arabist mayor. The population erupted in fury and armed locals put the army to flight. The Palestinian camps bordering Sidon joined in, and escalating unrest soon spread throughout Lebanon. For two weeks, demonstrations against the repressive role of the army were accompanied by street battles, and locals set up barricades of burning tyres and overturned buses, nearly paralysing the whole country.

A war "against the PLO"

Already in February 1975, Gemayel had proposed that there should be a referendum over the presence of what he called the "Palestinian Resistance". This provocation, like many before it, was met with overwhelming opposition from the left nationalists as well as the Muslim masses. But just one week later, Phalangists invaded Beirut university and shot dead a student who was distributing a leaflet against Gemayel's referendum.

This was only the beginning. On Sunday 13 April 1975, a bus full of Palestinian women and children was returning to the eastern camp of Tel al-Za'atar. Their route home passed through Beirut's Christian suburb of Ein al Rumaneh. Armed Phalangist gunmen were waiting for them and all of the 27 passengers died in a hail of bullets. The message of the Phalange was - "keep out of our territory, or else".

This massacre sparked an immediate response from the nearby Shia Muslim quarter of Chyah, which spread fast to Sabra, Chatila and the other Palestinian camps and Muslim ghettoes. What Beirut radio referred to as a "minor incident due to a misunderstanding" between Palestinians and phalangists, was taken for what it was - a declaration of war by the Phalange against the Palestinians and Lebanese Muslim poor. A gun battle was soon raging between the people of Chyah, and the Phalangists. The Palestinian camps in West Beirut, began to mobilise, setting up sandbag barricades. The more radical factions of the Palestinian resistance - but not initially Arafat's Fatah - immediately deployed their militants to other localities to organise blockades and fighting units. This was generally met with enthusiasm by the local inhabitants.

The Sunni Mourabitoun militia allied itself with one of the radical sections of the PLO, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and managed to drive the Phalangists out of the Kantari district of Central Beirut and the Maronite militias out of their bunkers in the hotels of Beirut Port. Soon the whole of West Beirut was in the hands of the so-called "progressive Palestinian" coalition.

The Phalangists were taken aback by the reaction they had provoked. President Franjieh's regime was unable to rely on the army to restore order and had no alternative but to sign a cease-fire. The Muslim prime minister, accused of sympathy with the popular rebellion, was forced to resign. Kamal Jumblatt who led the Druze Lebanese National Movement, refused to support the government - calling for the expulsion of the Phalangist ministers. His Druze militias were soon to ally with the progressive coalition.

In the meantime, a new Sunni prime minister, Rachid Karame was appointed. But the ceasefire did not hold. Between July and September the Phalange recruited thousands of new militiamen, believing that if it had a strong enough force it could achieve its aims.

Tons of weapons and ammunition were supplied by the imperialist powers - mainly by France and by the US directly and via Israel. However the left, the PLO, the Muslim resistance and the Druze, also managed to receive large quantities of arms from Libya and Syria. The combined effect of all this was to turn the whole country into what amounted to a free-for-all arms market and one giant military camp full of opposing factions.

Throughout the summer of 1975, the fighting kept breaking out sporadically, until September when a new concerted offensive was mounted by the Phalange. This led to 5 uninterrupted months of civil war. And of course it was the poor civilians who suffered most casualties. One of the worst incidents was Black Saturday, in December 1975. After 4 Christians were found shot dead in a car in East Beirut, the Phalange proceeded to set up roadblocks and the first 40 Muslim men to arrive, most of them with their families in their cars, were taken away to have their throats cut. There followed a tit-for-tat escalation which resulted within a few hours, in at least 300 dead on each side.

By January 1976, when the Phalange laid siege to the Palestinian camps of Tel-al-Za'atar and Karantina, Arafat could no longer keep his own Fatah PLO guerillas out of the fighting. While they had already made an alliance in June 1975 with Amal, the newly-formed Lebanese Shia militia of the so-called "Movement of the Deprived", to defend their own areas, neither Amal nor Arafat's PLO had formally participated in the war. But now they did, helping to secure a bloody defeat of the Christian town of Damour, the stronghold of ex-President Chamoun.

Syria intervenes - as saviour of the Christian Right...

In the meanwhile, Israel was carrying on its incursions into South Lebanon and providing help to its Phalangist allies. But it did not at this point intervene directly in the conflict, even though it constantly threatened to do so. However, the Syrian regime sent its troops into the border Bekaa Valley, to pre-empt a move by Israel.

Of course, Syria feared a victory of the Lebanese left in alliance with the PLO, as much as did Israel and the imperialist powers. Such a victory could have encouraged the poor masses throughout the region to rise up against their repressive ruling classes. No way could president Assad's dictatorial regime allow such a message to find its way to the poor masses of the Arab world, not in Syria, nor elsewhere.

As a result, while having tried to appear as neutral regional peace broker for almost a whole year, president Assad now openly took sides with the protégé of Israel and imperialism - the Lebanese Christian Right. By this time, the Phalange and the rest of the Christian militias had been united under a single command by Bashir Gemayel, to form the so-called Lebanese Forces (LF).

By February 1976, Jumblatt had refused Syrian proposals for internal reforms aimed at maintaining Maronite rule and allied his Druze militia with Fatah, against the LF and Syria's interference. Syria was forced to show in practice that it was on the Christian militias' side. Two months later, when it became obvious that the "progressive-Palestinian" coalition was winning ground, to the point of threatening the Maronites on Mount Lebanon with defeat, Syrian troops appeared in their thousands to save the Maronites.

In May 1976, the Syrians arranged for the installation of a new president of Lebanon, the Christian Maronite banker, Elias Sarkis, guarding the ceremony with 2,000 Syrian troops. The investiture took place not in Beirut, however, but in the in the town of Chtaura in the Bekaa Valley and the Syrians ferried 67 Lebanese MPs there by helicopter. By October, the Syrians had obtained a mandate from the Arab League, with imperialist blessing, to enter Beirut as an "Arab Deterrent Force". Contingents of Saudi, North Yemeni, Sudanese and Emirates soldiers were to participate, but it was 15,000 Syrian troops, who marched in to occupy Beirut, after a cease-fire was finally signed by the warring sides.

After 19 months of street fighting, bombardments and massacres, 40,000 people had been killed and over 100,000 wounded. Much of west and central Beirut lay in ruins.

...and finds itself hostage to its own policy

The Christians of east Beirut had welcomed the occupying Syrian troops with rose water and showers of rice. And when the Syrian contingents reached west Beirut, the Sunni Mourabitoun and Palestinian guerillas also welcomed them, firing their rifles into the air.

But Syria was to demonstrate graphically to these guerillas that it was not their friend. It ordered all these groups to hand in their weapons, bombarding the camps with shells if it encountered the slightest resistance. Its attitude to the armed Christian right was quite the reverse. These elements were to make up units in a new and so-called legitimate Lebanese police force and army. When the Phalangists got out of control and took pot-shots at Palestinians or captured them and tortured them, the Syrians turned a blind eye.

However, despite Syria's leniency towards them, the Phalangists did not prove grateful. Having been allowed to retain their weapons, unlike the Palestinians, they began to attack Syrian forces. Given the links which existed between the Phalange and Israel, Syria could not afford to allow Phalangists to take control of Lebanon. The very last thing that Syria wanted was a Phalange-led Lebanon - in effect an Israeli satellite - sitting inside its belly.

So after less than 2 years of relative calm, Syrian forces were now obliged to turn their guns on the Christian far-right and shell East Beirut for the first time.

In fact, the Lebanese political setup which Syria favoured, and in this it was supported by the other Arab league countries, was a further compromise between the leading elements of the Sunni Muslim and Maronite bourgeoisies, aiming at more or less equalising power between them. Israel, however, saw any power relinquished in favour even of conservative Muslim forces, as a potential threat to its ability to control both sides of its northern border. Besides, so long as the Syrians were suppressing the Palestinians and the Lebanese poor, Israel was happy to go along with Syria's occupation. But as soon as Syria used force against the West's and Israel's traditional Maronite allies, it was quite another matter.

While the West turned a blind eye, Israel, which had already moved elements of its army into Southern Lebanon in March 1976, now began an active and direct intervention. It used a proxy, however, to suppress the South Lebanese - uniformed, paid, armed, trained and commanded by Israel. This was Major Saad Haddad's "Army of Free Lebanon", later to be called the South Lebanon Army, the nucleus of which was made of Phalangists. By March 1978 Israel and its proxy had occupied Lebanon up to the Litani river, massacring at least 1,000 Lebanese and Palestinians - most of them civilians. It then pushed 285,000 people out of their villages and towns in the area leaving them to find refuge in the area north of the new Israeli "red line".

The UN responded by passing Resolution 425, which called on Israel to withdraw from all Lebanese territory and established the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon - or UNIFIL, which moved into South Lebanon on 6 April 1978, with a mandate to police a ceasefire and protect Lebanese villages. The PLO recognised the ceasefire imposed by the UN, but Israel did not budge an inch. So UNIFIL found itself confronted with Saad Haddad's far larger and aggressively hostile forces, which, backed up by Israeli generals, held them as impotent hostages within Israeli-controlled zones, while Haddad and the Israeli army continued their regular shelling and raids against Muslim villages and incursions further afield into Tyre and Sidon.

Israel's iron heel to crush the population

The Israelis then began sending their aircraft to systematically bomb Palestinian camps including those in West Beirut. But these bombings were just a prelude to a full-blown Israeli invasion - by land, sea and air, which was carried out in June 1982. This invasion was personally led by Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Defence Minister.

The Israeli invasion took the Syrians unawares and this led to an initial major Syrian defeat and retreat of the Syrian army back to the Bekaa Valley. The Israelis then completely destroyed Syria's air batteries in the Bekaa and a significant part of its airforce - by bombing it in Syria - for good measure. They then proceeded to march all the way to Beirut, and entered triumphantly within the month. The stated aim of this "Operation Peace for Galilee" was to destroy PLO forces and create a 40km zone north of the border under Israeli control. Occupying Beirut was a controversial bonus, not least back in Israel where the cabinet split over whether Sharon had exceeded his brief.

The Israelis then launched further and even more devastating bombings of West Beirut and Muslim/Palestinian slums in every other town. They clearly were out to physically annihilate the Palestinians and collateral damage was the least of their worries. The horror of the next few months, even for a population that had been through 7 years of civil war, was unprecedented. Israeli aircraft bombed daily, at times using cluster and phosphorus bombs. The death toll mounted day by day, with the camps of Sabra and Chatila and the adjacent residential apartments of West Beirut, but also two hospitals and a school taking the brunt of this onslaught, leaving thousands dead and wounded. But of course the Israeli occupation was also a blank cheque to the Phalange in Beirut.

Now that the PLO was on the verge of defeat, the US intervened to safeguard what was left of it. After all, they needed someone who was able to speak for the Palestinians and police any future agreement. So they negotiated a withdrawal of the PLO and 14,000 of its guerilla army from Beirut. Arafat and his immediate entourage were to go to Tunis, and the rest of the PLO forces were to be dispersed among 7 Arab countries. The PLO's withdrawal was completed on 1 September under the protection of French, Italian and US soldiers.

Israel then facilitated the election of their ally Bashir Gemayel, from the Phalangist clan, as president. However, just 21 days after he was elected, on the 14 September, Bashir Gemayel was blown up by dynamite planted in the Phalange HQ - perhaps by Syrians' Mukhabarrat, perhaps by Mossad, or one of the anti-Phalangist factions, who knows?

But this was not the end of the bloodshed. On 15 September 1982, the Israelis gave Phalangist militias the go-ahead to enter Sabra and Chatila, providing ammunition, wireless communications, food and night-time illumination, while the militias set about murdering the inhabitants. Over the next 24 hours, it is estimated that they killed 3,000 of the camps' inhabitants, including many women, who were raped first, and many children.

Eventually another "peace-keeping" multinational force was sent to Lebanon in late September, in theory to oversee the withdrawal of Israel, keep the peace and help protect those who were to rebuild Beirut's financial centre...and its banks, while Israeli troops still occupied half of the country. A US-mediated agreement provided for Israel's withdrawal over a period of 8 weeks. But 2 years after the agreement was signed Israeli troops were "still withdrawing". The blame was placed on Syria. As long as Syrian troops remained in the Bekaa Valley, why shouldn't Israel remain in South Lebanon?

But Syria's strategy was to wait until such a time when the situation would make it convenient for the imperialist powers to use its services again as regional peace-broker and strong man.

By early 1984, Muslim militiamen, mainly from Amal, took control of West Beirut. The Israelis were then forced to withdraw first to a new frontline north of Sidon and then to the Litani river, leaving behind them a trail of blood and destruction.

In July 1984, the 287 casualties caused among US personnel and soldiers by two suicide bombers, led Reagan to withdraw his troops and ships from Lebanon. The multinational force followed suit. Syria's time had come.

Syria - the only "solution"

The new Lebanese president, Amin Gemayel, could not rely on the national army, which had split down the middle along religious lines. He had no choice, therefore, but to seek the direct help of the Syrians to prevent a total collapse of the state. So the Syrian army came back to keep it on its feet.

The Syrians then presided over national reconciliation and eventually a new government of "national unity" was established, bringing Syria's militia allies into government for the first time. But no cease-fire held.

The Syrians then tried to negotiate with the other players - the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, Nabil Berri of Amal and with a faction of the Lebanese Forces led by Elie Hobeika, the butcher of Sabra and Chatila. But in the meantime, the war escalated once more, with fighting between all kinds of erstwhile allies - the Druze against Amal in West Beirut and Hizbollah against Amal in the southern suburbs. In May 1988, Syrian troops entered the southern suburbs of Beirut to intervene, but still remained out of the rest of Beirut.

As Gemayel was due to stand down as president, Syria hoped to be able to preside over the election of a pro-Syrian replacement. It already had US approval, thanks to the role it played in freeing hostages held by Amal and Hizbollah. However, the Phalange and the LF were able to prevent the election from taking place as they controlled the Christian suburbs. Gemayel therefore appointed the anti-Syrian LF militia leader, General Aoun, as "Interim Prime Minister" in 1988. This resulted in a new phase of war during 1989-1990 - Aoun's so-called "war of liberation" against Syria. Once this was dealt with, Syrian troops decided not to waste any more time and took over control of most of the country.

In the meantime, in October 1989, the surviving Lebanese parliamentary deputies met for the first time outside of Lebanon, in Taif, Saudi Arabia, hosted by the Arab League, to try to settle the civil war by an agreement over constitutional reform. Under this accord, Syria was meant to withdraw from Lebanon once the situation had been stabilised. It endorsed a new constitution which reduced the powers of the president, gave equal representation to Christians and Muslims in the National Assembly (theoretically getting rid of reserved seats for Christians) and gave greater powers to the Cabinet. In the end all that this changed was that the president no longer had so much executive power. But the "Confessional", i.e. religious divisions in the government remained entrenched.

Of course, this agreement was rejected by Aoun, but he was soon to be replaced as army chief following new elections, this time presided over by Syria. However, the new president was assassinated by a car bomb (thought to be planted either by Aoun or Mossad) 17 days before he was due to take office, showing, for one thing, that the civil war was still not over.

Fifteen years of imperialist meddling

The fifteen years that followed the "end" of the Lebanese civil war, up to this day, are beyond the scope of the present forum. As far as Lebanon and Syria were concerned, these years were dominated by the power games of imperialism and their regional ally, Israel.

If the US allowed, and in fact encouraged, Syria's occupation of Lebanon during these years, it was not just because it was convenient to have a regional auxiliary willing to maintain political stability in the country. It was also because Assad was the only significant Arab leader who was prepared to join in with the US-led assault against Iraq, following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

In those days there was no question for Bush senior of calling the Syrian regime an "evil dictatorship". In fact the US even torpedoed an attempt by French president Chirac to launch a UN investigation into Syrian atrocities during and after the fighting in the Lebanese civil war.

The same attitude prevailed under Clinton, to the extent of consistently refusing to criticise publicly, Syria's failure to conform to the Taif agreement by withdrawing from Lebanon. The Clinton administration was determined to keep Assad officially on its side in its on-going blockade of Iraq - to the point of allowing Syria to break it by importing large quantities of Iraqi oil. But in addition, Clinton wanted to get Syria to sit at the negotiating table with Israel, with the aim of achieving a bilateral agreement similar to that brokered by his predecessors between Israel and Egypt. And, of course, the Syrian occupation of Lebanon was not the sort of subject that Clinton could afford to raise if he was to achieve these objectives.

In the end, the Syrian-Israeli discussions aborted over the issues of Israel's refusal to withdraw from the Golan Heights and Syria's assistance to the Lebanese Hizbollah. By that time - this was in 2000 - Israel had finally completed its withdrawal from Lebanon, with the exception of the small water-rich mountainous area of the Shebaa Farms, next to the Golan Heights. But, and this was the real stumbling block in Israel's negotiations with Syria, the Israeli troops had been forced out of Lebanon far more rapidly than they would have wished by an all-out offensive of Hizbollah guerilla forces coupled with an increasing unease about the rising casualties in Lebanon among the Israeli public.

Bush junior's election changed nothing with regard to Clinton's policy, despite the harsher rhetoric of the new administration. If the Israeli-Syrian treaty was no longer on the agenda, securing Syria's support against Iraq remained the administration's priority. So Bush postponed, for over a year, a Syria Accountability Act proposed in 2002 by the Republican pro-Lebanese lobby in the US Congress, which included sanctions against Syria if it did not take steps to withdraw from Lebanon. Even after the adoption of the Act, at the end of 2003, it took Bush another 6 months before issuing an executive order to implement the threatened sanctions, in May 2004. And yet, in the meantime, Syria's president Bashar Assad had openly stated his opposition to the invasion of Iraq and called for resistance to the occupation forces.

This would indicate that until that time, the Bush administration thought that it could still get some support from Assad's regime. It must be said that, in this respect, Syria has given mixed signals. On the one hand it handed over US relatives of Saddam Hussein who had taken refuge in Syria to the US. But on the other, it had taken a vocal stand against the invasion. Whether this implies military assistance to the resistance, as CIA sources have claimed, is another matter.

In any case, the result of all this was that for over a decade the US gave its tacit approval to Syria's occupation of Lebanon. However, the backing provided by the US to UN resolution 1559 demanding Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon does not even necessarily mean that this is a priority for the Bush administration. It could very well be yet another device to put pressure on the Syrian regime, either to withdraw its support for Hizbollah in Lebanon, so as to ease the pressure on Israel, or to take the US side in the Iraqi conflict, or both.

Citizen Hariri

For Lebanon, the past 15 years have been marked by the rule of what can only be described as the capitalist mob. And the deceased Rafiq Hariri is probably the best representative of this particular kind of "rogue" businessmen.

When Hariri became prime minister of a pro-Syrian government for the first time, in 1992, he was a real estate tycoon who had made a considerable amount of money in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. His programme consisted of two objectives: rebuilding Lebanon as a banking centre, and turning the country into the "Singapore" of the Middle East, to use his own language. This was the core of his stated policy all along, during his five terms as prime minister, from 1992 to 1998 and again from 2000 to 2004.

To all intents and purposes, Hariri has run the affairs of the state using the same methods he used in his business empire - to the point that most officials employed at ministerial level in economic matters in the various governments that he led, were former employees of his own companies.

But above all, as a true adept of "self-help", Hariri has helped himself from the state coffers throughout his tenure in office. So, the bulk of the reconstruction contracts for Beirut were awarded to one single company, Solidere, whose main shareholder was none other than Hariri himself. And what is involved is not petty cash. The value of this company alone, represents the equivalent of 60% of the Lebanese Central Bank reserves in foreign currencies. In order to finance the luxurious buildings of the new Beirut, Hariri resorted to enormous state borrowing, resulting in the public debt soaring to twice the equivalent of the country's GDP. In the process, of course, as the owner of one of Lebanon's large banks, Hariri took his own cut.

Predictably, after all these years in office, Hariri died a very rich man. The Forbes wealth list credited him with assets worth over $3bn in 2003. By that time he controlled directly or indirectly all but one of Beirut's daily papers and one third of the country's television network, not to mention numerous financial companies, hotels and a large portfolio of shares invested abroad.

What makes the propaganda portraying Hariri as a champion of the opposition to the Syrian occupation a joke, is the fact that his clan is known to have had extensive business links with Syrian dignitaries. So, for instance, in 2003, the scandal of the LibanCell company - one of the country's two mobile phone networks - revealed that it was owned by two of Hariri's close associates on behalf of the Syrian vice-president and a former Syrian Chief of Staff and had been allowed to withhold large amounts of royalties from the state under Hariri's tenure.

But then, from this point of view, Hariri was certainly no exception among Lebanese politicians. For instance, another well-known example of profiteering involved Nabil Berri, the Amal militia leader and speaker of Parliament, whose wife's construction company won the contract for the southern part of the country's coastal motorway and managed to overcharge the government by several hundred million dollars!

The seeds of civil war

It would be wrong to think that the seeds of civil war have disappeared in Lebanon.

For one thing, political violence, terrorism and murders, have been common occurrences since 1990. Political and religious militias, which were officially disbanded on paper as part of the Taif agreement, with the exception of Hizbollah, which was allowed to retain its weapons as a protective measure against Israel's incursions, still exist even though they may have a lower profile.

But the worst potential for civil war is the increasing poverty experienced by a large section of the population. While Hariri and other prime ministers were plundering the resources of the state in order to rebuild Lebanon's financial sector, the poor masses were made to foot the bill of the soaring public debt in various ways.

Much of the public infrastructure which was destroyed during the civil war has still to be rebuilt. There is hardly any public transport in the country. Hospitals and schools are inadequate. And the poor still live in the same slums that were besieged and shelled in the 1980s.

What is more, Hariri has introduced an anti-working class agenda designed to cut the cost of labour to a minimum in order to attract foreign investment. The foreign investment is nowhere to be seen so far, at least nothing that would provide stable jobs for the unemployed. But the conditions of those at work have deteriorated drastically.

This increasing poverty has already led to violent confrontations. In May last year, for instance, a small protest of a few hundred demonstrators against gasoline taxes in a suburb of Beirut was attacked by the army which opened fire, killing six demonstrators. Over the following six hours, the population of the area poured in the streets. Thousands of people burnt tyres across the Shia suburbs and several hundred club-wielding demonstrators stormed the ministry of Labour, setting an entire floor ablaze. Significantly the Hizbollah leadership accused American agents of having started the riots. But the fact is that, under the pretext of the country's sky high public debt, the government had raised gasoline tax to 40% of the consumer price, which primarily affects the poorest in a country which is largely deprived of public transport.

Next to this increasing poverty, the wealth of the Lebanese capitalists is more of a discordant contrast than ever. It is fed partly by Hariri's success in cutting the standard of living of the population and partly by the return of the banking sector to the country. To date, banking assets in Lebanon represent three times its GDP and most are owned by foreign banks - with French and American banks owning the lion's share. This affluence can only feed deep resentment among the poor masses.

The constant threat of Israel and the Palestinian problem also contribute to sustain a climate of instability. The radical Palestinian groups may no longer be as visible as they used to be in the refugee camps, but their influence remains. To a large extent, however, they have been replaced as an organised force by militias like Amal and Hizbollah which both have considerable resources and, to a large extent, are outside the control of the Lebanon government.

Finally, another indication of the fragility of the present situation emerged since Hariri's murder, with a wave of attacks against Syrian immigrant workers in Lebanon. With the opening up of the border between the two countries, hundreds of thousands of jobless Syrians have come to Lebanon to take the lowest paid jobs in construction, trade, catering, etc... Many of them live in the most precarious conditions, sleeping in cars or parking lots. Others have managed to find a place to stay in one of the shanty towns. Now, with anti-Syrian feelings being whipped up by politicians, they are being targeted by groups of thugs, as if it was they and not the profiteers, who were exploiting the Lebanese poor. Predictably, the forces resorting to such demagogy, are first and foremost those of the Christian far-right. But they are not the only ones.

The masses have still to use their potential power

All the ingredients for another explosion are present in Lebanon today. And the manoeuvres of imperialism could very well trigger such an explosion, by throwing Lebanon off balance as a result of its power games.

But it would be a catastrophe if, once again, the Lebanese poor allowed themselves to follow leaders whose only objective is to secure their own positions on the political scene, as was the case during the 14-year Lebanese civil war.

At the time, the united ranks of the Palestinian refugees and Lebanese poor could have represented a considerable force, capable of defeating not only the far-right militias, but also the attempts by the ruling classes of other countries - Israeli or Syrian - to disarm them.

But in order to make the most of their collective force, they needed a policy which neither the confessional leaders of the Lebanese progressist parties nor the Palestinian nationalist leaders was willing to propose. They needed a policy aimed at uniting the ranks of all the oppressed in the region behind the struggle against all privileges and all exploiters, domestic as well as imperialist.

How else can the poor masses foil the divide and rule games played by the imperialist powers and their regional auxiliaries, like the Syrian regime? How else can they bridge the religious gap created within their own ranks by the colonial legacy and fed by demagogues until the present day? How else could they rally the Syrian poor to their sides against their own dictator?

No-one can tell today what the future has in store for Lebanon. But we must hope that a generation of activists will remember the lessons of the Lebanese civil war and learn from the recent events in Iraq. We must hope that they will steer clear of the demagogues, religious or otherwise, who are trying to lure them into a dead end, and see instead the need for the poor masses to raise their own proletarian flag and to rally behind it in the middle of the chaos created by the imperialist world order, in order to overthrow it.