Thursday, September 17, 2009

Political Stalemate in Lebanon

On September 10th, Saad Hariri tendered his resignation as Lebanese Prime Minister, citing difficulties in forming a consensus government. Though not unexpected, reactions to the resignation have varied widely. Some see such a dramatic step as potentially ushering in a new round of sectarian violence, similar to that which left over 100 dead in May 2008. Others, notably L’Orient Le Jour view Hariri’s action as purely an act of political showmanship, since his command of a parliamentary majority ensured his will re-appointment by President Michel Suleiman.

Hariri has suffered enormous difficulty in forging a government which satisfies all parties, a problem which he and his supporters blame largely on the intransigence of elements within the pro-Syrian March 8th coalition, particularly Hezbollah and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. Hariri has argued that despite making concessions which were unpopular within his own power-base (particularly with the right-wing Kataeb and Lebanese Forces parties), the Hezbollah-FPM have kept imposing new conditions which make the formation of a functioning government impossible. In particular, debate has revolved around the means by which ministerial posts will be designated, with Hariri attempting to compromise on 15 posts for the March 14th alliance (reflecting their Parliamentary majority following the June 7th elections), 10 posts for the March 8th opposition, and 5 selected by the President. Michel Aoun has also proved inflexible in demanding that his son-in-law Gebran Bassil regain his 2008 post as telecommunications minister. Hariri’s clear frustration was shown in his resignation speech when he stated that he would not allow the post of Prime Minister to become a “mail box” which merely accepts the demands of parties as to who is awarded roles in the national cabinet.

Aside from the difficulties which have dogged his short tenure as Prime Minister, Hariri’s resignation had a more proactive purpose. He actively sought to be re-nominated by President Suleiman following the President’s consultation with the leaders of the various Parliamentary blocs, which took place earlier this week. That this is was his objective all along is not in doubt, despite Al-Mostaqbal MP Ammi Houri’s claim in the Daily Star on Saturday 12th that “Hariri has not decided yet if he wants to be re-designated”. On Sunday, Hariri laid down the law, affirming that although in a democracy no-one had to re-nominate him, he would treat those who did not nominate him “as he treated me before my nomination” once he returned to his post. This does not bode well for the cabinet prospects of Mr. Bassil.

Despite apparent political stalemate, there appears to be a general unwillingness on all sides to countenance a return to the violence that last erupted in May 2008. Rhetoric on all sides has veered away from the threat of direct action.

Hezbollah, not usually a party to mince words when developments meet with its disapproval, has delivered a relatively muted statement through its Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Naim Qassem. Its current stance is limited to voicing its concern that any Prime Minister in the immediate future will face the same problems as Hariri, since “mutual concessions” are required to deal with Lebanon’s complex sectarian make-up. He added that Hezbollah would impose four rules for contribution to the formation of a cabinet – Implementation of the “15-10-5” formula, the participation of all opposition parties in any future cabinet, “flexible dialogue and concessions” during the cabinet-forming process, and application of the principle that a parliamentary majority should not necessarily be reflected in a cabinet majority. In other words, the March 14th movement’s success on June 7th should count for very little. What Hezbollah’s actual response would be should Hariri refuse to back down further following a reinstatement is not clear.

Hariri has more explicitly opposed direct action, warning at an iftar dinner on September 12th against politically motivated disruption. The stance of his Christian allies is more forceful, but also eschews actual violence. Following a mass to commemorate the assassination of Bashir Gemayel in 1982, his widow Solange, herself a former Kataeb MP, stated that the “absolute majority of steadfast Lebanese” would not let the country be drawn into a constitutional crisis and accused the opposition of seeking to prevent a national unity cabinet “by force of arms”.
Some hope may be drawn from parties’ apparent unwillingness to engage in the sort of political posturing which could lead to a sudden eruption of violence in the style of May 2008. AUB Political Science professor Karim Maldessi, quoted in the Daily Star, seemed confident that “no one, either in Lebanon or abroad, has an interest in seeing fighting resuming in the streets”.

Despite the apparent wish for calm on all sides, there are a number of factors which, combined with the potentially fractious internal political climate, are potentially causes for concern should a strong, functioning national unity government not be formed soon.

The first of these, as Makdessi points out, is tension between the main players in the region. Saudi Arabia and the United States both back Hariri’s coalition, while Syria and Iran support the March 8th movement. The tension between the four could lead to their indulging in the old game of using Lebanon as a proxy battleground. Saudi Arabia has already been implicated by some in the encouragement and funding of radical Sunni groups in the country as a counterweight to Iran and Syria’s long-established support of Shi’ite Hezbollah and Amal. Such Sunni groups have become increasingly active in Lebanon the past few years; taking unilateral action against Israel, confronting the Lebanese army and attempting to target UNIFIL troops in the South. It is unlikely that they would feel strong enough to challenge Hezbollah directly, but should Sunni feel dissatisfied with the current democratic quagmire then support for these groups may grow, and with a growth of support may come an upsurge in operations.

The other potential cause for worry is Israel. Although Israel’s action since 2006 has been limited to shelling and airstrikes in response to militants’ launch of rockets over the border, the tone of its leaders has made it clear that it is the government of Lebanon, rather than militant groups themselves, who Israel will blame for attacks should Hezbollah be included in any national unity cabinet. Should Israel feel at any point in the near future that it has been pushed too far, then it would be perfectly capable of launching the kind of attacks on major Lebanese cities which may push Lebanon towards further unrest.

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