It is presidential election countdown time in Lebanon but the parliament that votes is a divided house. Will the legislature finally vote or will it demolish the house instead?
What is wrong in Lebanon? There is political paralysis. A handicapped cabinet duels robotically with a dizzy opposition. Sectarian governance power sharing is out of date. Resource management is corrupt. National defense is weak. Foreign powers and neighbors are too involved. And there is an out-of-control budget deficit.
Allied with a secular Christian party, Hizbullah leads the opposition and election politics depend on its future. In an atmosphere of panic, the legislature is due to vote on October 23 for a new chief of the nation. Time is running out for a seamless process of voting to occur.
Will the elections usher in new stability to the country or will they lead to renewed civil war? Speculations about the future of Lebanon are wild and confusing. The International Crisis Group report of October 10 may help us unravel the complexity of the situation.
ICG reports that despite the economic pain it has inflicted on society by staging a ten month sit-in strike in the capital, Hizbullah remains uniformly popular among the Shi’a and supportable among a significant segment of the Christian community.
However, ICG adds that today Hizbullah, the resistance, is under growing political and logistical pressure, making it more amenable to historic compromise. The ICG argues that Hizbullah would welcome relief from the growing challenges that have come its way since the devastating war with Israel in the summer of 2006. The report explains that the resistance movement is now restricted in military mobility by the deployment of the Lebanese army and UNIFIL in the south.
The movement has to rebuild the south and the capital suburbs that were decimated in a devastating war that had no winners . It has to maintain the support of people who have suffered from the war. It has to convince the Lebanese society that it is not sectarian; it has to show that it is defending the entire country; that it has a regional scope of influence; that it is a Lebanese rather than an Iranian agency or a Syrian stooge. It is worried about a new war with Israel in which Lebanese society may not give it the same warm shelter it received last year.
ICG concludes in the report that Hizbullah is ready to make a deal with the Lebanese government, a deal that would be partially accommodating to the idea of paramilitary resistance but firm on state authority. ISG recommends the following specific measures:
g Resistance for defense not attack: Hizbullah’s militia is authorized for some limited time to help the Lebanese army in defense against foreign attacks.
g An equidistant president: The rival parties agree on a consensus candidate that would respect the resistance and comply with existing international resolutions that guarantee state sovereignty.
g International Court: Acquiescence of all parties to support the work of an international court for investigation of political murder,
g Strong national defense: National defense will be coordinated to strengthen the Lebanese army.
g Respect for and from Syria: Equitable relations with Syria should be set up including defined borders and control of illegal arms’ trafficking.
g Shebaa Farms: Government will actively lobby to first reclaim and then liberate Israeli-occupied Sheba Farms territory.
These recommendations reveal logic and fairness but since when has Lebanese politics been informed and guided by reason? We have reached the countdown period of the coming elections yet no acceptable candidates have emerged. It is one thing to have failed elections and it is another to have aborted elections leading to civil war.
Out of fear of the future and public shame, local politicians are back on a track of dialogue in search of a solution. In recent weeks political rhetoric on both sides has calmed down. Majority leader Rafic Harriri improved the political climate on September 25 when he started a series of contacts with Nabih Berri, Berri playing two contrasting roles: the parliament speaker and the opposition diplomat. Furthermore, the Maronite church has convened Christian leaders from the opposition and the government side urging them to choose a unifying candidate. Is the Patriarch now massaging Hizbullah’s Christian partner, General Michel Aoun, to abandon his ambition for the presidency in return for a post in the new cabinet?
To understand the total picture one has to look beyond the local scene. We are often reminded that the elections are not only about a choice of a national leader. Lebanese elections reflect local compliance with contradictory foreign pressure: U.S. and Saudi policy from one side and covert dictates of Syria and Iran from another. The Americans, who support the Lebanese government, have zero tolerance for militia formation. But the U.S. government has minimal sensitivity to daily Israeli intrusion into Lebanese air space. A million U.S. made cluster bombs are left unexploded in the south of Lebanon from the Israeli bombardment of last summer. Lebanon is in a sense a victim of contradictory U.S. foreign policy, on one side, and mischievous Syrian/Iranian involvement in Beirut on the other.
More importantly, the U.S. is taking a hard line with Hizbullah’s regional partners, Syria and Iran. There are no signs that Washington is treating Syria with sufficient diplomatic respect. Syria is not invited with warmth to the November Middle East peace conference that will take place in Annapolis, Maryland. The priority concern of Syria is the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Annapolis will not deal with the Golan. Similarly the U.S. pressure on Iran for its nuclear program is heating up as Washington tries its best to expand future international economic sanctions on Iran.
Syria’s adversaries in Lebanon used to be tame. Not any more. Harriri, possible heir apparent to the position of the next prime minister, continues to irritate Syria. Harriri advances steps for the set-up of the International Court to investigate his father’s assassination in 2005. The work of the International Court is a threat to Syria and the hype surrounding the court naturally does not promote Lebanese-Syrian relations. Harriri’s verbal attacks on Syria and Iran do not match his recent gestures of diplomacy toward the opposition in Beirut.
Saudi Arabia is also involved in the Lebanese game. On October 11, Speaker Berri announced in public that he wished Syria and Saudi Arabia would resolve their differences over Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab countries are supporting the government and wary of Hizbullah’s militarism.
Manipulative international pressure leads the Lebanese statesmen to work covertly. Let us hope that behind closed doors a deal is being made to allow the Lebanese elections to happen. If the ISG report captures the scene correctly, neither the government nor the opposition is likely to have their most favored candidates screened for the October 23 event, if elections were to occur.
Moderation is the order of the day. Should there be a hidden compromise in the works, the chances are slim for the election of General Michel Aoun, the opposition candidate, or Nassib Lahoud and Boutros Harb, the two candidates of the ruling coalition.
Three “moderate” independent candidates for the presidency are being talked about. Listed in the order of their chances for winning the post of the next president, who by tradition is a Christian, are these three Maronite figures: General Michel Suleiman, Riad Salameh and Robert Ghanem.
Predicting the Lebanese elections is taking too much risk. So far opinions remain frozen and the elections may even have to be postponed again for two weeks or so. When diplomacy fails and reason falters, military solutions gain strength. We have come very close to the election date without a consensus candidate and without an agreement on new ways of doing “business.” In this deadlock context, General Michel Suleiman may have quietly become the candidate of default to maintain law and order and to prvent a messy confrontation of wills. As chief of the army, Suleiman defeated the terrorist insurgents in Nahr al Bared this summer.
Moreover, Suleiman is externally friendly to the Syrian regime, and at the same time, he has recently gained respect from Washington for his anti-terror success in the face of a sectarian AlQaeda-like insurgency. Washington’s compromise in Lebanon at the end of the day may painfully evolve as a response to the threat of the spread of terrorism should the system collapse. Nahr al Bared was a foretaste of what might happen if political vacuum is institutionalized by an aborted election and its aftermath of chaotic power grabbing.
When society panics, the military looks heroic. Has Washington and Damascus finally agreed to let Lebanon skip this round of political unraveling? Or are we to witness more “interesting” times?