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An Existential Lebanese Choice?
Over the years, many analysts have lost their political periscopes in the treacherous sands of Lebanese politics...

1 December   |   2008   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... First, there were “civil wars” for almost fifteen years that tore the country up and set it aflame. Then, the Taëf Accords ostensibly stepped in to redress the ornery behaviour of its leaders but ended up curbing the powers of the president of the republic or its Christian communities and admittedly placed the country under an Anjar-centred Syrian tutelage. Much later, the country witnessed the Independence Intifada of 2005 when new neo-revolutionary values unfurled on the streets and vied with older realities. But despite all those upheavals, the Cedars of Lebanon have remained a political conundrum as they have wrestled time and again with sectarian uncertainties let alone political infidelities. Lebanon celebrated on 22nd November its much-cherished 65th Independence Day, but unlike the Israeli-Palestinian or Iraqi conflicts that exhibit a set of unflinching core issues, one can never presume to predict what political ghoul would come out of which Lebanese corner at any moment.

Today, I would suggest that there are four largely inter-related and major issues at the epicentre of the Lebanese political discord. They consist of the national pan-confessional dialogue under the auspices of the president of the republic, the future of arms in the hands of different political groups and militias, the future of Palestinian refugees both inside and outside their camps and last but not least the decisive impetus that Christians will in all likelihood inject into the forthcoming parliamentary elections of 2009.

The national dialogue: in some way, it is a by-product of the Doha main deal that facilitated the election of a new president and the formation of a “national unity” cabinet that houses diametrically opposite standpoints. It was also meant to foster reconciliation between the warring factions and address the unresolved standoff about the legitimacy of arms outside the remit of the army. This dialogical exercise, I believe, would only be a cosmetic exercise that does not have much chance for real progress but will nonetheless hopefully keep the peace amongst major players who have committed publicly to the Doha process. It could also be a catalyst in restraining all parties from unilateral and bellicose moves that would wrench the lid off the present insecure calm.

The future of arms that Hizbullah, the Party of God, has in its possession: this is meant to be a central plank for the national reconciliation dialogue. However, most seasoned commentators are aware that this issue cannot be resolved before the parliamentary elections in the spring of 2009. No way will this party, let alone its allies or protagonists, surrender their arms whilst they maintain the need for resistance against an Israel that still occupies small plots of Lebanese land and exhibits what they consider an expansionist threat on the country. So much so in fact that the Free Patriotic Movement leader General Michel Aoun returned from a recent visit to Iran and presented his blueprint for a national defence strategy that is based on his 2005 Memorandum of Understanding with Hizbullah. It called for combining the Resistance and the Lebanese army into a “community resistance” that would command the loyalty and resources of the state along with all its institutions and citizens. What this blueprint for a defence strategy actually imputed is a negation of the need for UNSC Resolutions 1701 and 1559.

But this blueprint that aims to mobilise all the citizens of the state could become another dangerous recipe for further civil wars. As the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt counter-argued in the weekly newsletter al-Anba’a, General Aoun’s proposition would transform Lebanon into a “constant war field, which topples stability, torpedoes investment and increases emigration.” Taken one step nearer toward at least one of its logical conclusions, Jumblatt’s viewpoint translates into the fact that the state is the sole authority, and that any defence strategy that does not respect the pluralism of the state cannot be taken into consideration in any future discussions. After all, was the temporary takeover of the western districts of Beirut by Hizbullah and Amal elements on the fateful night of 7th May not a dangerously implicit manifestation of consensus by coercion?

The future of Palestinian refugees: to start with the tactical considerations, it is helpful to recall that disarming Palestinian factions outside the camps was meant to have already been decided during the first national dialogue in 2006 prior to the war with Israel in July. So their status strictu sensu is not in my legal opinion lite pendente anymore. However, political calculations have prevented implementing its provisions practically on the ground.
Insofar as the Palestinian camps are concerned, it is also important to recall that the idea of tawtin (or the granting of residency through Lebanese citizenship to those refugees in the camps across Lebanon) that would push up the Sunni quota in the country if ever implemented is a political non-sequitur used by politicians as a ruse to prop up their own political ends. The Lebanese government, and the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, have already agreed that no tawtin will occur in Lebanon since such a move would undermine inter alia the validity under International law of UNSC 194 calling for the right of return [to their homelands].

Indeed, the Palestinian-Lebanese Dialogue Committee (LPDC) works pan-politically to defuse such malingering chronicles, as well as to rebuild Nahr el Bared near Tripoli that was destroyed substantially following the battles between the Lebanese army and the Fatah al Islam radical movement. It also strives to improve the long-standing and truly deplorable conditions in some of those camps. Such efforts must not only be maintained, but also re-doubled seriously, without opening rifts between the Lebanese and Palestinian peoples that would be a throwback to the bloody battles three decades ago. Moreover, the issue of tawtin should not be dragged into the electoral ring by the Cassandras of Lebanon who believe that purveying bad news would inevitably strengthen their flanks.

Christian performance in the forthcoming elections: all my contacts with different Lebanese pundits confirm that the battle for Christian votes will arguably be the hub of political alliances or lobbies in the months ahead. The recent Shi’i-Sunni ‘summit’ between Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Sa’ad Hariri resulted in a ‘reconciliation’ of sorts with both leaders excluding any electoral alliance between them. So the Sunni and Shi’i seats are almost clear pickings in most districts - with few notable exceptions. Even a putative future meeting between Walid Jumblatt and Hassan Nasrallah will in my opinion not result in any electoral pact and therefore cannot alter substantially the calculus of their respective seats in the next parliament. All this leaves the Christian candidates to fight it out amongst themselves - cleaved as they are between the March 8th and 14th coalitions.

But the present dynamics are dangerous as they reflect Christian tensions inter partes that have not mimicked the corresponding easing of tensions within Muslim camps. This has led to occasional verbal attacks against the institutional pillars of Christian society, namely the Maronite patriarch and even the president. With baffling alliances so characteristic of Lebanese intra-politics, one way of engendering support seems to be through the dangerous exhumation of past demons and animosities. There is real fear as to the outcome of those votes in view of the way that candidates are being chosen by the different parties. Indeed, with diametrically opposite political platforms, strategies and even expectations, I would suggest that the Christian voter is faced with clear-cut choices that are not solely binary but also organic in their ramifications on the overall future of the country.

This is why we keep hearing alarm bells hither and thither, with dichotomous positions over the impact of the Taëf Accords, and international alliances and regional influences being exercised by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Iran, let alone the USA and Europe, over issues that centre upon freedom, pluralism, religion and resistance. Indeed, Christian divisions can even be seen at the micro-level of national governance. Just observe how the small but influential Armenian parties - namely the Tashnag party - have heretofore broken their legendary collective neutrality in support of the presidential powers-to-be and have now forged new cross-party political alliances.

In fact, this sense of constant political realignments is becoming a talking point of the forthcoming parliamentary elections as everyone eyes the stance of President Michel Suleiman. It seems an independent, middle-of-the-road national parliamentary bloc that has a Christian ethos and owes its organic allegiance to the president is an idea that is rapidly gaining currency in the country. In fact, if such a bloc emerges after the parliamentary elections, it could conceivably sway the power politics of the country and affect the clout of both principal coalitions.

However, such an emergent movement could damage General Aoun’s electoral self-anointed position as sole Lebanese Christian leader. After all, the former deputy prime minister and Metn powerbroker Michel al-Murr has withdrawn from his bloc, a move that could tip the balance in the Metn and impact the neighbouring Kesrouan - alongside any probable Armenian shifts in their own electoral platforms. No wonder then that Syrian channels are trying to prevent such fragmentation by bolstering General Aoun’s standing with Lebanese Christian constituents and proclaiming him “leader of Christians in the Orient” with an “historic mission” and an “objective, national Lebanese personality” who harbours “a strategic insight that understands Arab and regional powers.”

Another major underlying focus in all those alliances is the definition of the role Syria ought to play in Lebanon. There is a battle being waged between those supportive of an active role, and those who reject it, and Syria itself is heavily involved in spinning the outcome. All this explains somewhat the reason why an almost surreal episode played out on Syrian New TV quite recently, with the televised confessions of alleged Fatah al-Islam members attempting to discredit the March 14th coalition in the person of Sa’ad Hariri’s Sunni Al-Mustaqbal (Future) party by associating it with terrorism. But this ill-advised and frankly unpolished strategy seems to have yielded no concrete results. I understand that the prosecuting judge of the International Tribunal mandated by UNSC 1701 to look into the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri and 21 others on February 14 2005, as well as a string of subsequent political murders, is close to submitting his report to the UN Security Council.

Mind you, logic would dictate that such allegedly “terrorist members” in Syrian custody should be handed over to the Lebanese authorities investigating those murders. After all, the ‘security coordination’ mooted between Lebanon and Syria following an earlier visit to Damascus by the Lebanese Interior Minister Ziad Baroud should fulfil its coordinating role within a clear judicial remit, or else the whole concept of ‘coordination’ becomes an Orwellian concept that would bear a less edifying intent.

However, all polarisations, reservations and even fears surrounding the pending judgment of the tribunal should not stunt the progress of the much-touted diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Syria. Whether half the Lebanese populace likes it or not, Syria is one of the most critical players in Lebanon and the Arab World. Its larger global geo-strategic interests will not allow it to eclipse entirely - certainly not at the present time. The establishment of embassies between Lebanon and Syria before end-year is therefore quintessential. However, for such progress not to be merely ephemeral, it is important to proceed equally with the demarcation and proper control of borders. And given that Syria opposes such demarcation starting from the litigious zone of the Shaba’a Farms, I suggest initiating the process from the north, followed by a revision by a parliamentary commission of previous bilateral accords, and an enquiry by the International Red Cross into Lebanese citizens in Syrian gaols.

Lebanon today is perched precariously between life and death, facing success and failure in co-equal dimension. It is therefore vital for it to enter into a necessary accommodation with Syria that would introduce an element of stability into the region let alone into Lebanon itself but would definitively not jeopardise Lebanese territorial integrity or sovereignty. I admit candidly that this is a difficult balance in view of the different political variables at play, and I can observe how twisted French foreign diplomacy has become of late as President Nicolas Sarkozy tries to square the political circle by strengthening Lebanon as an independent state whilst re-introducing Syria onto the international scene and re-engaging with its regional responsibilities. But the fact remains that any other skewed outcome would mean that the parliamentary elections could well take place, but they will fail to unravel the Gordian knot that is undermining Lebanon and its hardy citizens.

Perhaps what might be helpful is the introduction of a quality of change that respects the National Pact guaranteeing the coexistence of all communities in Lebanon, whilst also not shying away from the onus of renegotiating the structure of power in Lebanon. Without being a naïve theoretician, I judge that the president of the republic, alongside the UN as guarantor, could provide such a political egress from this standoff. But for such a development to germinate in the country, political leaders must desist from thinking or acting like militia or clan leaders anymore and metamorphose into statesmen who use the appropriate tools to build up government capacity and nation-building in a bottom-up process that reflects the real global architecture of our common future.

Openly put, Lebanon requires an existential choice that would take it forward. Otherwise, what I fear we will witness in this period of electioneering - and also thereafter when the votes have been counted and the stalemates have re-surfaced in different formats and numbers - is not only a status quo ante but a much more perilous and radical heightening of tensions that could result in a screeching collision of the bullet with the ballot box.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2008   |   1 December


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