Friday, February 2, 2007

When Don Quixote takes to the streets

So today is a "day of change," to quote Suleiman Franjieh. He could be right. That’s because, as of tomorrow, Hizbullah may have much greater latitude to maneuver without considering the interests of its Christian allies - Michel Aoun and Franjieh himself. Both men are eager to be the opposition’s cannon fodder, and will emerge from the fracas with their reputation tarnished further. Not for the first time, Aoun is helping ensure that Christians will end up marginalized.

The Saudis and the Iranians are in the process of putting together a package deal to end the Lebanese crisis. Neither wants a Sunni-Shiite war in the streets of Beirut, yet somehow Aoun has failed to grasp the implications of this. He remains entirely focused on the fact that their arrangement might undermine his ambition to become president. The Saudi-Iranian project remains very much alive, despite Aoun’s warning on Sunday that Lebanon should not seek a solution from the outside. As usual, the general is moving against the grain of regional and international developments; as usual he is gearing himself up for a fall.

Both Hizbullah and Amal are giving Aoun enough rope to hang himself with. In his interview with Al-Manar on Friday, Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, set as a new opposition condition the holding of early parliamentary elections, before a presidential election. Aoun couldn’t have been foolish enough to believe that Nasrallah was serious. Or could he? Nasrallah knows the demand has no chance of being met, but the condition was apparently added to block something he was unhappy with in the Saudi-Iranian draft. Indeed, by Saturday unidentified sources, certainly from the opposition, were leaking to Al-Hayat that the main obstacle to a resolution of the stalemate was Michel Aoun.

On top of that, today Aoun’s and Franjieh’s followers will reportedly be alone in the trenches. While Shiite areas will go on strike, sources in Amal and Hizbullah have said that neither of the parties is committed to blocking roads in and around beirut - unlike the Christian groups. A Sunni-Shiite confrontation will thus be averted, while Aoun and Franjieh march on, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, two soldiers in pursuit of Christian irrelevance.

Nasrallah will let Aoun fall into the ravine, mainly because the general has become a burden. At the same time, Hizbullah will prop Aoun up until he reaches the edge. Nasrallah doesn’t want a messy divorce with the Aounists, who can still be very useful against the majority. If Aoun is ridiculed today, if his calls for a strike fail, if his only tactic is to bully people into not going to work, then soon Nasrallah might be able to tell the general: "Look, I tried, to the extent that I was willing to back your demand for early elections. But your influence is limited and I really must avoid allowing my differences with the Sunnis to get out of hand."

Most disappointing has been the performance of Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir. Now more than ever he must take a sturdier position on those Christians in opposition. Instead, he remains blandly impartial. In his Sunday homily, Sfeir directed condemnation against both the majority and the opposition, in particular against their "tenacity" at a time when Lebanon was sinking fast. That was understandable, but also unfair just before the majority-led government prepared to bring Lebanon billions of dollars in foreign financing. The patriarch was probably reluctant to add insult to Aoun’s and Franjieh’s almost certain injury today. Yet it is within his mandate, even his duty, to warn the Maronite community of the dangers ahead. And when two leaders are taking the lead in a mad adventure that is sure to bomb, and when Maronites in general can expect to feel the harmful backlash of that decision, Sfeir cannot evade taking a clearer stance.

Aoun’s dream of becoming president lies shattered. This showed in a speech on Sunday, in which he denounced "Harirism." It was always about Harirism with him, about his loathing for those who collaborated with Syria to build up Lebanon on the ruins of Aoun’s 1988-1990 fiasco. That same coalition would later push the Syrians out. The general cannot stomach that he has been twice deprived: of the merit he deserved for first fighting the Syrians; and of the political capital that should have accrued to him once they departed. You can sympathize, but not enough to follow a frustrated man down the path to communal and national perdition.

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