Thursday, August 23, 2007

Spare the army fatal factional politics

Spare the army fatal factional politics
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, August 23, 2007

On Monday, the dean of Lebanese journalists, Ghassan Tueni, wrote a column in Al-Nahar that turns much else written on the same subject into annotation. The subject in question is the prospect that yet another military man might be elected president of Lebanon, this time Army Commander Michel Suleiman. Tueni's headline played on a slogan popularized after the start of the Nahr al-Bared fighting that was favorable to the army: "The order is yours to give." Tueni turned this around to say, "The order is yours to give, in war not in government."

Tueni's point was a simple one. The Lebanese are grateful for what the army has done in the past three months, and can only sympathize with the troops who have suffered a horrendous casualty rate. When considering that the armed forces have only some 2,000 or so well trained combat troops, the toll is far more onerous than many realize. However, the lives of the soldiers do not translate into a blank check to hand power over to the military establishment through the election of Suleiman. For too long the Arab world has been a victim of immoveable military regimes. As Tueni concluded, it is now up to Suleiman to focus not on the presidency, but on helping his army recover from a devastating battle.

In recent days a story has begun circulating that Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is thinking of a plan to bring Suleiman in as interim president for two years - an idea similar to what Michel Murr proposed several weeks ago. Such an initiative would be rejected by March 14 and probably by Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. But that misses the point. What Berri is probably thinking of, if he makes his proposal public, is to provoke a conflict between the army commander and the parliamentary majority. If that's the case, then both the Suleiman and March 14 should avoid a head-on collision at all costs. The majority has absolutely no interest in painting the army as a villain. That's one confrontation that March 14 will not win, and, worse, it will wreak havoc within the Sunni community, whose sons in the Akkar have been at the forefront of the army's efforts to crush Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared camp.

Suleiman's merits or demerits notwithstanding, the general is not finding it easy being a stealth candidate. He received a boost from Sfeir last week when the patriarch was persuaded by As-Safir to say the magic words: that he would not oppose a constitutional amendment if this could help save Lebanon. With respect to Suleiman specifically, Sfeir remarked: "If the army commander can save the country, then welcome to him."

By the following day the Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, and the justice minister, Charles Rizk, had ascended to the patriarchal summer home in Diman to qualify what Sfeir had said. The patriarch, for all the respect he invites, has constrained March 14 in recent weeks, as has the Maronite church. A Maronite bishops' statement was critical of the Siniora government because it had signed an accord on the rights of the Muslim child and agreed to remove Good Friday as a holiday; Bishop Bishara Rai then accused the government of "Islamizing" the country; and Sfeir publicly insisted there needed

to be a two-thirds quorum for Parliament to elect a president, effectively endorsing the opposition's position, although he seemed to hedge on this in an interview published on Wednesday in the Kuwaiti newspaper As-Siyassa.

The patriarch's statement to As-Safir on an amendment, while it may have been a slip of the tongue, was more likely a reflection of Sfeir's state of mind. He does not trust March 14 much more than he does March 8 or Michel Aoun, and was likely sending a clear message: that it is preferable for the presidency to be filled, even by someone like Suleiman who is acceptable to March 8, than leaving the office vacant, which would mean the Maronites find themselves without their paramount representative.

If that's Sfeir's reasoning, it is worth mulling over, because the signs for now are that Lebanon will have no president at the end of November. Suleiman may become inevitable, whether the majority likes it or not. But if the patriarch sees the army commander as someone who can appeal to March 8, he should examine more closely whether he's acceptable to March 14. Samir Geagea spent 11 years in a cell at the Defense Ministry, so his enthusiasm for a dominion of officers cannot be high. The first time I met Walid Jumblatt in February 2005, military helicopters were patrolling over his palace at Mukhtara. In the past 15 years, while the army undoubtedly remains a nationalist institution, the reality is that the officer corps has been filled with individuals screened by Syria, Hizbullah, Emile Lahoud or Michel Murr, with many of the earlier holdovers being Aounists. For all the respect Suleiman imposed by remaining neutral during the Independence Intifada, more will be needed for the majority to consider altering the Constitution to bring him into office.

That reluctance is valid. Here is Lebanon, a rare Arab country which has not run to the barracks to resolve its every crisis, suddenly considering electing a second army commander in a decade. Meanwhile, a third military man, Michel Aoun, lurks in the background, insisting he's the redeemer that no one wants to acknowledge. The unfortunate fact is that Lahoud's politicization of the military very nearly ruined its credibility and effectiveness before 2005, and is a reason why the troops are so ill-prepared today for Nahr al-Bared. Nor do we need dispense much effort to show what a calamity Aoun's two years in power were. The general not only destroyed the armed forces, he destroyed the Christian community as well. That such a man should have the insolence to again want to "save" Lebanon is testimony to our capacity for amnesia.

Lebanon is not a laboratory for military rule, and should not become one. Michel Suleiman has not declared his candidacy, nor is he permitted to. But what would greatly help is for him to say plainly that he opposes the politicization of the army, and can prove it by refusing to accept the presidency even if it is offered to him on a silver platter. In the past nine months the military's neutrality is what has allowed Lebanon to contain the discord in the streets. If Suleiman were elected president, that neutrality would be lost. The army, through the president, would become a full-time political actor, and could be torn apart in the process.

In 1998, the Syrian regime sought to transform its way of doing business in Lebanon. Through Emile Lahoud's election it hoped to militarize rule in the country, so that Damascus could operate by way of a military hierarchy capable of marginalizing powerful politicians. The point was to centralize authority in Beirut, much as it is in Syria. The project was an abject failure, however, proving that the Syrian regime was always too contemptuous of its Lebanese possession to understand its inner workings. In the 2000 elections, Lahoud and the army suffered a withering defeat at the hands of the political class. The Lebanese can champion the army for a time, they can admire the bravery of its soldiers, but when push comes to shove, they prefer a traditional mode of diffuse leadership to centralization brought about by military muscle.

Suleiman is sensitive to this reality, and should remember this again when the presidential election period begins next month. The army never wins for long in Lebanon. The country is not Syria, Iraq or Egypt. That's why it would be best not to amend the Constitution, and why Suleiman should reject such an option on the grounds that the best way to reward the army is by keeping it outside the fatal reach of factional politics.

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