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Vijay Prashad: Tensions high in Lebanon as a series of lethal car bombings rock Beirut

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

As our regular viewers will know, we’re currently in the process of moving and building our new studio. Behind me right now, we’re in a makeshift studio. And you might hear sounds of construction in the background, so we apologize for that. We’re asking our viewers to bear with us for the next few weeks.

Now joining us is Vijay Prashad. He’s the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut. His most recent book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.

Thank you so much for joining us, Vijay.


NOOR: So, Vijay, you’re in Beirut right now. We know there’s been a lot of violence and a few bombings that have happened there recently, in the last few weeks. You have an upcoming piece coming out in The Hindu about what’s been going on there. Can you please fill us in?

PRASHAD: Well, you know, there have been two major bombings within a week, one that took place in downtown Beirut, which killed a former Lebanese ambassador to the United States, a Lebanese finance minister, Mohamad Chatah. Then there was a bombing just yesterday in the southern suburbs of Beirut, which killed about four or five people, wounded about 80 people.

These have become–I think the frequency of them has alarmed people. It has certainly alarmed [inaud.] a great deal.

Well, one of the things to keep in mind about car bombs, frequent as they might be in Beirut, they are very disturbing because they’re very hard to pinpoint, you know, who has done this. Very rarely do car bombs come with a claim of responsibility. That seems to be happening less and less. And it’s very hard forensically to figure out who has sent this message to whom. Things are not very clear. And because they are not clear, there is a great deal of tension.

NOOR: And I know there’s been pro-Syrian forces–Hezbollah has been targeted in some of these attacks, but also anti-Syrian leaders have also been targeted. Can you talk about the causes of this violence and how much of this perhaps is a spillover from what’s happening in Syria right now?

PRASHAD: Well, as I say, it’s very hard to precisely say which bombing is related to what particular political tendency specifically, but there are some general themes that I think can be brought out. For instance, it is the case that there is at least two sets of major fights going on around Beirut–around Lebanon, in fact. One is a fight inside Lebanon about the question of political legitimacy. There are two main political blocs: the March 14 bloc, which is backed largely by Saudi Arabia, and the March 8 bloc, which is dominated largely by Hezbollah and its allies. So these two blocs have been jockeying for political power in a very complicated system for several months. There’s been an interim government. They’ve had a hard time creating a cabinet. And behind all this is deals being made over the possibility of offshore natural gas and oil fields.

So, you know, this political tension, the inability to make any kind of deal inside the country, has been linked to the fact that the March 14 bloc, the bloc that is close to Saudi Arabia, has wanted Hezbollah to in a sense demilitarize, to put its fighters under the authority of the Lebanese military, or indeed to disband entirely. And so this is one major fight inside Lebanon, the question of Hezbollah’s militia, the question of who gets sovereignty over force.

Linked to that is the second set of issues, which is the support that these two blocs have provided to the fight in Syria. Largely, although not entirely, the March 14 bloc backs the opposition in Syria. And, again, largely, but not entirely, the March 8 bloc backs the Assad regime.

It has to be said that people in Hezbollah don’t say they back the Assad regime. What they say is, we have terrible choices, and this is the choice we have to make.

So these–you know, not competing, but these sets of issues, the question of the politics of Lebanon, the question of who has the monopoly of violence inside [Lebanon], you know, whether the military or Hezbollah has some part of it, then the issue of the Syrian Civil War, who supports whom in that war, these things have all raised the political stakes greatly. Because there’s no effective space to have a political dialog, violence breaks out.

NOOR: And finally, Vijay, you mentioned Saudi Arabia. The BBC has reported that Saudi Arabia has given the Lebanese government $3 billion to buy weapons from France. How does this fit into the equation?

PRASHAD: Well, you know, right after the bomb blast that killed Mohamad Chatah, who was the former finance minister, a major adviser to Saad Hariri, who is the leader of the March 14 bloc–Mr. Hariri, as it turns out, lives between Saudi Arabia and Paris, does not live in Lebanon–after his assassination, the Saudi government pledged to the Lebanese government $3 billion, which was going to come through France. In other words, the Saudis would hand over $3 billion to the French. The French would then, with the Lebanese government–and you know that the Israelis will be there to make sure that this shopping list is not something that they are angry about–will then transfer arms to the Lebanese military. In other words, it looks like this is money for internal security in Lebanon, not to fight against Israel with.

So this is a very serious and, I think, disturbing development, because this means that there’s an attempt by the Saudis not so much to innocently shore up the Lebanese military, but perhaps to make a rift between the Lebanese military and Hezbollah fighters. You know, from maybe the last 20 years, the link between the Lebanese military and Hezbollah has been fairly close. And, in fact, recently, when there was an outbreak of violence in Saida, there was close cooperation between the Lebanese military and Hezbollah.

So this, you know, supply of money for arms to the Lebanese military may not be as innocent as it looks. It might in fact contribute to the political instability in which Lebanon is embroiled.

NOOR: And Lebanon’s history has been fraught with foreign intervention. Lebanon itself is a small country. What are your thoughts about what the future may hold for Lebanon?

PRASHAD: It’s a very difficult question, Jaisal. Everybody’s wondering, you know, what comes next. Lebanon is used to the question of when will the next major violence break out.

But I have to say that having 15 years of civil war in very close memory between 1975 and 1990 has given the Lebanese people a stomach to have anything but that. You know, that 15-year civil war did not resolve anything, and I think there is a great reticence to go back to that kind of fighting. From Hezbollah’s side, there is also reticence to go into some kind of armed combat, because they feel that their principle enemy or their principle adversary is Israel. It’s not internal fights in–you know, it’s not fights within Lebanon.

So for that reason I feel that there is some hope that these provocations are not going to lead to a complete breakdown of Lebanese society. You know. But as I said, it’s very hard to predict the situation.

NOOR: Vijay Prashad, thank you so much for joining us.

PRASHAD: Thank you.

NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter, Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


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Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.