Lebanon's role in a UN security council resolution against Libya is evidence of unfinished business between the two countries
In the UN security council on Tuesday, Lebanon tabled a resolution backed by Britain and France for a no-fly zone to be imposed over Libya. The Lebanese ambassador, Nawaf Salam, told reporters: "Measures ought to be taken to stop the violence, to put an end to the situation in Libya, to protect the civilians there."
The move followed a meeting in Cairo on Saturday when the Arab League voted to ask the UN for a no-fly zone -- and the task of doing so fell to Lebanon as the only Arab member of the security council.
At one level the Arab initiative might be seen, at least in part, as retaliation from some league members and key individuals for Gaddafi's troublemaking at Arab summits over the years. But in Lebanon's case there are other dimensions too.
One is the long tradition of French-Lebanese relations and the drive to topple Gaddafi coming out of Paris. Another is the acrimonious relationship between Tripoli and Beirut, which dates back more than 30 years.
While it may seem strange that a deeply divided Lebanon -- enduring yet another dangerous period of government formation -- has united in support of action against Libya, the unifying factor is a belief that finally, in the wake of the chaos in Libya, the Lebanese can learn the fate of Imam Musa al-Sadr, a hugely influential Shia cleric who disappeared there in 1978.
Last month a former colonel in Gaddafi's army said Libyan agents had assassinated Sadr and buried him in the southern city of Sabha.
However the story became even more complex when a Libyan opposition activist, Sami al-Masrati, claimed Sadr was still alive. This would appear to support a claim by Musa Sadr's son last August that his father was still being held captive (if it's true, the cleric would be 83 next month). Last year Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, also said: "We say it out loud: Imam Sadr and his two companions are being held in Libya and they should be released."
The search for the truth about Sadr is a powerful motivator in Lebanon and has been a central issue in Libyan-Lebanese relations since the end of the Lebanese civil war. In 2010 President Michel Sleiman boycotted the Arab summit in Libya over the Sadr issue at the request of the parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, who is leader of the Shia Amal party.
The spat deepened when reports suggested that Gaddafi was going to expel some 20,000 Lebanese from the country and end all trade ties. The two countries have not had direct flights since 1978, and in 2003 Libya closed its embassy in Beirut after another argument between Gaddafi and Nasrallah.
Today, Hezbollah and Amal are driving the search for Sadr. It is reported that the Amal-run television station is running continuous footage of Sadr's speeches.
Interestingly, Syria -- one of Hezbollah's key allies -- voted against the Arab League's resolution for a no-fly zone over Libya. Indeed, Lebanon's position highlights a new coming together of interests that has even put the British government in a temporary alliance with Hezbollah, which recently announced that "anyone with honour and consciousness in this world cannot, and should not, keep silent on the massacres that the Gaddafi regime is committing across the country".
With Gaddafi's forces steadily winning back territory lost to the rebels, talk of a no-fly zone may become irrelevant. However, there is still the crucially important question of what place Gaddafi's Libya will have in the Arab world if he emerges victorious from the conflict.
Originally published in the Guardian