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Please General, do your job

Sectarian considerations must not stop the army from protecting Lebanon

by Sami Halabi

In most nations civilian rule of the army is hallowed political ground; it ensures that the power of the gun cannot be used to overcome that of the ballot box. Yet in a country such as ours, where the army is neutered by the executive, our parliament holds virtually no power to implement the laws it rarely passes, citizens are detained and released on a whim from a zaim while those convicted of working for Israel are set free, the prospect of independent decision making by the army would seem ideal. 

As the Syrian situation spills over into Lebanon this summer (and probably the next), the issue of whether the army should act to preserve the ‘interests of national security’ without the meddling of politicians will likely come up again and again. Our official policy of ‘disassociation’ from that conflict is an obvious self defense mechanism that has, until recently, served the country relatively well (considering the alternative of getting caught up in what is probably already a civil war). 

But disassociation cannot be an exclusive concept; rather it need be an inclusive one. It must extend to internal actors on both sides that would use Syria as the fire to fuel their extremist interests if it is to have any chance of effectiveness in the months (and perhaps years) that we will have to deal with trouble across the border. Instead of retreating to the barracks when fighting breaks out, the military must act as it is legally mandated to and ‘disassociate’ itself from those who would see us dragged into the sectarian strife  across the border. 

Yet a rush to the militarization of decision-making sets a dangerous precedent that we need consider before we call for the army to set itself to purpose. The history of nations, including ours, is rife with examples of how a rush to ‘preserve the republic’ leads to an oppressive military state, something that will not provide an answer to the problems ailing the country.

Take for example of how military men cannot be counted upon to uphold civil rights. Our presidents that ascended from the ranks and file have done practically nothing to keep their oath to uphold the constitution, as it is breached almost as a matter of habit by the governments they preside over. Those ex-commanders who are regarded as pallbearers of the state, such as former president Fouad Chehab, can easily be singled out for creating the conditions (such as discrimination against Palestinians) that led to the civil war itself. 

Yet every so often those chief consensus commanders do serve a purpose. President Suleiman’s call for a resumption of National Dialogue to deal with the issue of arms, and specifically (but not exclusively) those of the resistance, represents a tilt toward reform. But it is still early days. 

We should not forget that by the end of the last National Dialogue sessions in 2010, the country was rife with jokes about what a sham the whole affair was, precisely because Hezbollah rejected the issue of a national defense strategy that encapsulated its arms. But now that Syria could go either way, or no way at all, Hezbollah seems ready to hedge its bets, otherwise Suleiman would not have announced his plea. 

And since the last dialogue sessions it has become blatantly obvious that the political class in Lebanon cannot deal with the everyday issues that plague the country because of their obsession with the issue of weapons, as if they are the reason the lights go out or outbound planes are filled with our brightest young minds. 

So amidst all that we are faced with today, the convergence of both internal and external factors presents us with a rare opportunity to overcome the hurdle of arms that has divided us. Any attempts to set preconditions by the opposition are merely play for time, something we are running out of fast. If the army can do its job without overstepping its boundaries and the resistance is truly genuine in its commitment to real dialogue, the Arab uprisings could, perhaps, finally have reached our shores. 

The only other option is to continue to slip into an increasingly sectarian conflict, and we all know what happened the last time we tried that.   

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Sami Halabi

Sami Halabi is the director of knowledge and co-founder of Triangle, a development, policy, and media consulting firm. He is also the former managing editor of Executive Magazine.

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