To the Arab Spring, Lessons from Lebanon
In the battle between Israel, the Arab states, and Iran, Lebanon’s Fatima Gate has become the front-line. The gate, once a border crossing between Lebanon and Israel, is today padlocked; it has been closed since Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 after years of holding the area as a buffer zone against attacks from Hezbollah militants. Fatima Gate has since become a tourist site, attracting Hezbollah supporters who throw stones at Israeli troops on the other side. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was rumored to be planning a detour to the gate during last year’s visit to Lebanon to throw a symbolic stone at Israel himself. And while he didn’t make it all the way to the gate, his influence there is felt all the same.
So journalist and Middle East expert Michael Totten describes the situation in Lebanon as he recounts his time there in his first stab at book writing. In The Road to Fatima Gate, Totten excels at telling his story of revolution and optimism, using words that paint such a vivid picture they take the reader inside Beirut in 2005 and 2006 during what could arguably be called the Arab World’s first ‘spring.’
The starting point for Totten’s account is the event that sparked the Beirut Spring, or what some call the Cedar Revolution—the assassination of then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, father of the recently ousted Prime Minister Saad Hariri, on February 14, 2005. For good reason, many Lebanese believe the car bomb that took out the elder Hariri was planned by Syria, as Hariri advocated for the end of Syrian domination over Lebanon, in place since the former’s 1976 invasion. His assassination, however, kicked-off events—including Lebanon’s largest rally in history—that ousted Syria after 29 years of occupation.
Similar to today’s ‘Arab Spring,’ the Lebanese air was full of excitement. “Beirut at that time looked and felt like the beginning of a new Middle East,” Totten writes. But while Damascus was officially gone, Lebanon was not free. “Ousting the Baathists…produced the same result in Lebanon that it did in Iraq,” Totten explains, “a power vacuum that would soon be filled by the Islamic Republic regime in Iran,” this time via Hezbollah.
Hezbollah, a Shia militia group founded in 1982 with the goal of ousting Israel from Lebanon, “was genuinely popular” while Israeli forces remained in the country’s south. But under the guise of being a Zionist “resistance” group, Hezbollah, with the help of Iran, increased its arsenal so much so that by the time of the Beirut Spring in 2005—five years after Israel’s departure—the militia had officially created a true state-within-a-state situation in South Lebanon, marking Iran’s front line with Israel.
But having a front line wouldn’t be enough. “Eventually, the state would have to absorb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah would devour the state,” Totten writes. Indeed, although Hariri’s anti-Syrian March 14 Coalition won big in the fair parliamentary elections following Syria’s withdrawal, Hezbollah used its political influence backed by brute force to become a powerful bloc in Lebanon’s governing cabinet. Then in January 2011, when the uprisings in the Arab World were just beginning, Lebanon’s officially ended when 11 pro-Hezbollah ministers pulled out of the Parliament, forcing its collapse. With Hezbollah’s choice for prime minister, the pro-Syrian Najib Mikati, winning the nomination soon thereafter, and Hezbollah itself coming to dominate the new Lebanese Cabinet, six years after Lebanon’s ‘spring,’ Hezbollah has full control of the state.
Totten’s story is ominous. At its core, The Road to Fatima Gate is a warning to the U.S. and democracy-seeking participants of the current Arab uprisings of what can happen when a political vacuum is created in today’s Middle East: Iran, in its quest for regional domination, will try to fill that void.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Tehran will. In a traditionally strong state such as Egypt, it is unlikely that the military would let its power slip into Iranian hands. Indeed, Iran’s wrath will more likely be felt in weak states such as Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh is losing his grip. But even so, Iran under President Ahmadinejad is cunning and never misses an opportunity. Given the post-Mubarak foreign policy direction Egypt is forging, Iran will likely have its chance to establish a direct presence in the once-unfriendly country as well as in Gaza, whose borders with Egypt were recently opened to pedestrian traffic. While there, Iran will likely partner with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to advance its goals, perhaps using the popular Islamist group to undermine Cairo.
What does this mean for the U.S.? Make alliances with likeminded Middle Eastern states and peoples, and stand behind them. “Some anti-Americans in March 14 told me the reason they didn’t trust America wasn’t because they hated the U.S. but because Americans were unreliable allies,” Totten writes. While unfortunate, the Lebanese are not wrong. Take recent events in the Middle East: The White House called for longtime ally Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to immediately begin transitioning from power less than one week after Egypt’s protests began, but has been exceptionally timid toward longtime enemies such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
It also means that in the Middle East, Iran’s support of terrorist proxies is unraveling governments in the region, one-by-one. The solution? According to Totten, an internal overthrow of the Iranian regime for a more liberal, democratic one. As he notes, “According to the Financial Times, a majority of citizens in eighteen Arab countries thought Iran was more dangerous than Israel.” With statistics like that, it’s time Washington forgets engagement and takes action by supporting Iranian dissidents who stand up to the Mullahs.
By intertwining personal experiences with history, Totten’s book is a must read for anyone interested in understanding Lebanese politics and Iranian methods of domination in the changing Middle East. It is also a warning for the U.S. and democratic advocates of the ‘Arab Spring.’ As with Lebanon, the environment in which the ‘spring’ has sprung is ripe for subversive suspects whose taking root would not only harm the United States’ interests in the region, but set back the Arab populations’ struggle for greater freedoms as well. It happened in Lebanon, and it could happen again.
Today, the Fatima Gate is a daily reminder of what once was—relatively peaceful relations between the Israeli and Lebanese people, and what is—Iran’s takeover of Lebanon via Hezbollah. It represents the lost chance of securing a democracy for the Lebanese, and with it a stable life. Most of all, however, it is a forewarning of what the Arab World’s uprisings may inadvertently produce.
Samara Greenberg is a senior research associate at the Jewish Policy Center and the deputy editor of inFOCUS Quarterly.