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Muzzled Tensions across Lebanon?
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30 March   |   2009   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

5 March 2009: five days ago, the Lebanese Council of Ministers unanimously decreed that this date will henceforth become a Muslim-Christian national feast day so that members of both faith communities come together annually around the theme of Together around Mary: Our Lady and exalt Sitna Mariam (St Mary, mother of Jesus). Given that both Muslims and Christians revere Mary in their respective holy books, albeit in different ways, this feast hopes to draw them together, and in so doing perhaps focus on what unites rather than what separates them. There are also plans to export this feast to Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Poland, Italy and France next year as an innovative platform for inter-religious and inter-regional dialogue.

I liked this rather unusual idea, and I pray that that this Marian icon will manage to become an apolitical - or at least non-politicised - catalyst providing the foundation for a further coming together of all Lebanese communities. But the irony - and I suppose ultimately the strength - of such a project is that it has found its genesis in a country with so many tectonic confessional plates. It is encouraging that a resilient Lebanon of ever-decreasing cedars, increasingly busy these days gearing itself up toward the parliamentary elections of 7th June, can find the time, space and will to institute this symbolic feast.

Yet, important as religious symbols are for Lebanon, a more crucial symbol looms ahead in the shape of the results of the forthcoming elections. They would elicit the alliances and political forces of the two respective political coalitions of 8th March and 14th March and perhaps even trace a trajectory for the future course, development and possible re-alignments of the whole country as politicians change camps, consolidate their gains or suffer their losses.

This is why a closer look reveals myriad tensions, uncertainties and spats underlying political structures. In fact, feuds can be witnessed during almost every meeting of the Lebanese cabinet whose current template for governance was drafted by a finite Doha Agreement and which at times reflects more a sense of disunion than of union. The two major political blocs busily vie for influence, with the electoral lists of candidates in different constituencies - especially in critical ones such as the Metn - proving hard to put together because everyone pushes their sectarian affiliations at the expense of the larger good.

Interestingly enough, the Armenian Tashnaq party has now assumed the role of kingmaker in this mêlée: their seats in Beirut, the Metn and Zahlé could together tilt the balance of power between the two coalitions. No wonder then that politicians from both blocs, let alone from within the same blocs, have feverishly canvassed for their votes. Armenians, who number around 150,000, would probably sway the results in the Beirut 1 district (including Achrafieh, Saifi and Rmeil) where most Christians live today, However, the three Armenian parties (Tashnaq, Ramgavar and Henchak) who do not always see eye-to-eye politically should also be prudent with their choices and examine the consequences of their alliances or any breach of their historical neutrality and long-standing support for the incumbent presidency.

But the disagreements in the cabinet - whether over the national annual national budget and the amount to be allocated to the Council for South, over judicial appointments, over the national dialogue under the auspices of the president or even over the location of ministerial offices and telephone wiretapping - are all sapping the strength of the country and fomenting quite dangerous polarisations amongst its diverse communities. Lebanon is a tinderbox, and there is always the fear that a minor event could catapult the whole country into a major confrontation. Still, perils notwithstanding, nobody seems capable to take bold visionary decisions or make concessions at this critical stage without the risk of alienating their constituencies.

Interestingly enough, I realise that a majority of the Lebanese population of all hues and backgrounds are well-meaning and hard-working, let alone canny enough to suss out their leaders’ agendas. Yet, their populist hopes are negated not only by the inveterate ambitions and confessional nature of Lebanese politics, but also by this bizarre political setup in a Lebanon whereby the majority and opposition parties are meant to work together consensually. They sit together around the same cabinet table and participate collectively in the decisions of government. Yet, their interventions are more like endless filibusters that simply arrest any decision-making process. Besides, what aggravates the anomalous situation further is that the minority parties within government retain their veto on all decisions through their one-third blocking votes in cabinet. In other words, any cabinet decision can easily be unmade or frozen. One wonders how any constructive democratic decision could then be taken as each side checkmates the other with glib ease. I do not think I have ever come in my constitutional studies across any system of governance that places the winning and losing sides together in government.

But let me go back to the elections. Overall, even when factoring into the equation all those questionable nominations that occur via what the PSP Druze leader Walid Jumblatt described as “asphalt bulldozers” (political favours made to gain voters’ support that include paving roads), the numerical results of the ballots are more or less clear for the Sunni, Shi’i and Druze constituents. But they fall apart quite sharply in relation to the constellation of Christian parties. So what happens with the Christian vote is crucial in defining the future Christian presence in Lebanon - not only as an essential fabric of Lebanese history and plurality but also of regional Eastern Christian presence - and in underlining its future witness. For instance, despite his repeated assertions to the contrary, I believe that the FPM movement led by General Michel Aoun who sees himself as the Christian tsar is losing some ground and seems less likely now to become the undisputed Christian party in the next parliament - certainly not when his former ally, the Greek Orthodox Michel el-Murr, claims that he is no longer with Aoun, and when State Minister Nassib Lahoud busily consolidates his independent but largely pro-14th March platform.
In addition, the outspoken patriarch of the Maronite Church has also been admonishing the parties to be cautious and the voters to be wise with their choices. On 16th March, this ageing and increasingly less relevant church leader warned that “voters must know who they will be choosing to defend their basic rights... They must not forget the proverb, ‘whoever buys you shall sell you.’” But the influence of the church has been in steady decline and Maronite politicians are increasingly breaking ranks with it. As such, it will be interesting to observe how the ballot box will address intra-Christian rivalries and transubstantiate the results of the elections into hard facts that can then be exercised peaceably on the ground.

As important, and arguably more decisive than the parliamentary elections, is the proceedings of the forthcoming Special Tribunal for Lebanon that will convene in The Hague to examine the assassination in 2005 of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - father of House Majority Leader Saad Hariri. The four generals in custody suspected of involvement in this assassination are meant to be transferred to the court in The Hague soon so their innocence or guilt is determined by the panel of judges. A Memorandum of Understanding between Lebanon and the Special Tribunal coordinates the flow of communication between both sides. In a rare interview recently, Daniel Bellemare, the Canadian general prosecutor for the Special Tribunal, told the Canadian television programme Envoyé Special that “no phantoms planted the bomb to assassinate Hariri. There were real people behind the bombs, and we are capable of finding them.” As such, the repercussions of this trial - barring any violence - could be quite acute, more so since Rafik Hariri’s murder and of a host of other bombings and assassinations is what put in motion much of the developments in Lebanon over the past four telling years.

When one speaks of Lebanon, of elections and tribunals, one cannot overlook the Syrian influence that has overshadowed this country since the Taëf Agreement (Document of National Accord) of 1989. Despite all the recent international moves to transform Lebanon and Syria into independent states with normal diplomatic relations, the Syrian regime should strive to improve the situation further by facilitating the process of disengagement between the two countries. Although ambassadors have been exchanged for the first time in the history of Syro-Lebanese relations (Michel el-Khoury for Lebanon, and Ali Abdel Karim Ali for Syria), scant effort has been deployed to date to resolve the thorny issues of border demarcation, Lebanese detainees in Syrian custody, and the disputed territory of the Sheba’a Farms. Only today, at the 21st Arab Summit in Qatar, the Syrian president postulated mechanisms on how to manage intra-Arab disagreements but did not define on how to solve them. So many pundits await the next set of Syrian moves as they will not only impact Lebanon but also the geopolitics of the wider region. However, it is clear that the constancy, sharpness and shrewdness of Syrian foreign policy are now yielding dividends. After all, Syria is being courted by France, the USA and Saudi Arabia - which had opposed it vociferously in the past - and has also resumed its role as maker or breaker of deals. What happens in the future is relevant, since the Syrian stance could heavily affect not only Lebanese independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and prosperity, but also other regional factors including Iran, Palestine and to some lesser extent in Iraq.

Last week, the Lebanese parliament approved a draft law to allow voting rights to 18-year-olds. If the government approves this draft law within the statutory period of four months, it will enable the younger generations to vote in the 2010 municipal elections. Although some key players are concerned that this measure could well create a demographic power imbalance in the country, I still regard it is a positive step and hope that Nabih Berri’s Parliament and Fouad Siniora’s Government would act in concert - and in the same vein - when tackling other pending issues too. Perhaps Lebanese politicians would heed President Suleiman’s recommendation for the establishment of a Senate according to Article 7 of the Taëf Accord - later integrated as Article 22 into the Lebanese Constitution. The Taëf Accord had envisioned a bicameral government, with parliament elected on a non-sectarian basis and sectarian representation being relegated to the second chamber.

In my contacts with Lebanese colleagues and friends, I am constantly amazed by the flexible and enterprising nature of the Lebanese character. Despite bloody wars and a surfeit of doom and gloom - so much so that many younger generations are still traumatised by it - the Lebanese psyche remains quite robust and its entrepreneurship manages to re-build the country after each calamity. Just look at how the Central Bank of Lebanon is managing to sustain the stability of the financial market when richer countries are almost up against the wall as they heap billions into creating uncertain fiscal stimulus packages.

Today, despite my self-confessed pessoptimism, I would argue that the Lebanese file stands a chance for building a peaceful national compact so long as good will and good faith join hands to serve the interest of the Lebanese people and their public institutions. But would realism in Lebanon help set its spirit free, or would it muzzle itself with more tensions?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   30 March


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