Thursday, September 27, 2007

A majority that refuses to act like one

The two-month period to elect a new president has begun, and not surprisingly it started with a deal. On Tuesday, Parliament was called into session to find a successor to Emile Lahoud. Instead, the speaker, Nabih Berri, bought an extra month to haggle over a consensus candidate. That may be what many Lebanese want, but the result will not be stability.

The deal was roughly this, according to parliamentarians present in the assembly room: Berri rescheduled the parliamentary session until October 23, but not on the grounds that a two-thirds quorum was absent. In exchange, March 14 removed from Deputy Parliament Speaker Farid Makari's public statement a paragraph maintaining its right to vote for a president by an absolute majority of at least 65 parliamentarians. In that way the majority avoided recognizing the opposition's insistence on a two-thirds quorum in all rounds of voting for president. Berri, in turn, locked majority leader Saad Hariri into weeks of negotiations that risk breaking the unity and momentum of March 14 - a vital ingredient in the coalition's efforts to bring in a new president without the opposition's acquiescence.

The tactical differences between Hariri and Walid Jumblatt on the presidency are now out in the open, and this is beginning to seriously hamper the strategy of March 14. However, it is not just Jumblatt and his allies who were displeased with the implications of the Hariri-Berri arrangement. Other parliamentarians aligned with neither politician were equally disturbed that the majority had missed an occasion to elect a president on its own, which would have affirmed its status as a majority.

To be realistic, however, there was no way that March 14 was going to elect a president on Tuesday. Hariri has been under great Saudi pressure to compromise, while Jumblatt knows that a president brought in by March 14 would need to have a prior guarantee of Saudi, American, and European recognition to be politically viable. That recognition may yet come if Syria and the opposition continue to hinder the election process, but it does not exist today. Hariri simply had no latitude to avoid Berri's trap of setting a timeframe to find a consensus candidate.

That said, March 14 cannot afford a consensus president, since such a person is bound to be critically weak. Hariri reportedly intends to be the next prime minister. This will lead to the creation of an unwieldy "political" Cabinet in which all major political forces are represented, and in which the opposition's right of veto power has already been recognized. That veto power, together with Berri's control over parliamentary procedure and the ongoing effort by Syria to brutally change the numbers in Parliament, will give the opposition effective control over policy. An anemic president will be in no position to alter this situation, leading to deepening polarization. The majority will have surrendered executive power in the government in exchange for a nonentity as head of state.

The real fight in the coming months will be over who dominates the government. The presidency is important, but many politicians seem to have forgotten what the crisis during the last 10 months has been all about: the opposition's demand to block Cabinet decisions. Nor have enough people in March 14 sufficiently grasped the significance of what has for months been a Syrian and opposition stipulation: that Fouad Siniora is unacceptable as prime minister of a new government.

The majority has made a serious tactical error in not picking up on that condition - either to reject it outright or accept it in return for an exorbitant concession. Instead, Siniora has found himself with little overt backing among the majority - because this might be perceived as an effort to thwart Hariri's prime ministerial ambitions - so he has unnecessarily been sold cheap. Worse, opposition groups will make Hariri sweat before he heads a new government, though they ardently want him to take the post. They know that once in office he would have to accept daily compromises merely to hold his government together, making him less effective on a wide range of key issues, from government support for the Hariri tribunal to implementation of United Nations resolutions.

What can the majority do to break out of its glass box? First, it must come to an agreement on a single presidential candidate who, to borrow from Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, is to March 14 what Berri is to March 8. In other words, the majority's candidate, whoever that person might be, should be open to all sides, but make it a priority to firm up the achievements of the 2005 Independence Intifada. March 14 must then announce that this candidate will be elected by an absolute majority on October 23, unless it can agree with the opposition beforehand on another candidate who has the same general political orientation and objectives.

The current strategy of the majority of having two candidates in hand - Boutros Harb for a consensus, let's say, and Nassib Lahoud for the confrontation - is not working. In fact, the tactic is dividing March 14, as every Maronite in sight contrives to gain the upper hand. The majority is a majority and has every right to announce whom it intends to elect. The opposition can ask for reassurances that this person will take its interests into consideration, but it shouldn't be granted the authority to shoot down all those it doesn't like. After all, what is the value of a majority in the shadow of a minority's right to brandish a perpetual veto?

A second step March 14 must take is to insist that Fouad Siniora is its candidate as prime minister of any new government. This would demonstrate the majority's commitment to a government made up mainly of technocrats, not political heavyweights. It could justify this on the grounds that Lebanon is today in need of expertise, particularly social and economic expertise, not the divisiveness a political Cabinet will generate.

And third, in the coming weeks the parliamentary majority must rally Arab and international support behind its strategy of electing a candidate on October 23 by an absolute majority; that is if it cannot arrive at a compromise with Berri on someone else who might better please the opposition while also fulfilling the majority's conditions of securing Lebanese sovereignty and independence, upholding the Hariri tribunal, and implementing UN resolutions. Saudi endorsement of the majority's candidate will go a long way toward containing a Hizbullah counter-reaction, since the party will want to avoid Sunni-Shiite clashes.

Opposition parties have hijacked the presidential election process and are trying to deny the majority its democratic right to act like a majority. In the face of such brazenness, March 14 has to deploy some audacity of its own. Parliamentarians are being picked off one by one. Tiptoeing around a bogus consensus is futile when the problem has become existential.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Showdown In Lebanon

COMMENTARY Wall Street Journal

Showdown In Lebanon


September 21, 2007

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- On Wednesday Antoine Ghanem became the fourth anti-Syrian member of the Lebanese parliament to be assassinated in two years. He was the latest victim of a protracted political crisis in Lebanon that both preceded and was exacerbated by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005.

Soon after that murder, international pressure and a mass uprising dubbed "the Cedar Revolution" put an end to Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon. But Syrian President Bashar Assad never reconciled himself to the forced departure. Now Syria is trying to use the upcoming Lebanese presidential election to reimpose its hegemony over its smaller neighbor.

Next week Lebanon will enter the constitutional period, during which its parliament must choose a new president. The election might allow the Lebanese to finally be rid of Syria's peon, President Emile Lahoud, whose mandate was forcibly extended by Damascus three years ago. However, there is a real danger that it will be the final nail in the coffin of the Cedar Revolution.

The outcome will also help determine whether Syria can win an important round in a regional struggle pitting its alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas against a loose coalition of forces including the United States, the mainstream Sunni Arab regimes, and European states. Amid heightening polarization throughout the Middle East, a Syrian victory in Lebanon could also exacerbate simmering tensions elsewhere.

In fact, the election might conceivably not take place at all. Mr. Assad realizes that any successor to Mr. Lahoud who seeks to consolidate Lebanon's sovereignty would be a barrier to the revival of Syrian supremacy. Damascus's Lebanese allies, most significantly Hezbollah, agree.

Hezbollah, which presides over a semi-autonomous territory with a private army of its own, knows that only renewed Syrian sway over Lebanon would allow it to continue its struggle against Israel and the U.S. Iran backs Syria, both to keep alive Tehran's deterrence capability against Israel (thanks to the thousands of rockets it has supplied Hezbollah in south Lebanon), and because Syria is a vital partner in allowing Iran to expand its reach across the Middle East.

There are also opportunities in this election for Syria's adversaries. The anti-Syrian Lebanese parliamentary majority, as well as the Bush administration and its more reliable European allies, believe that any new president must secure the gains made in 2005, when Lebanon recovered its independence. Their priority is to prevent the election of someone who might turn back the clock. The problem is that this anti-Syrian majority sits with Syria's friends in the parliament, which elects the president. They must come to a mutually satisfactory agreement or Lebanon will find itself even more dangerously divided than it already is.

This election is not just about a president; it is also, for many of those involved, about existential issues. Hezbollah, a revolutionary, military party that feeds off conflict (or "resistance") to survive, has no place in a liberated, liberal, cosmopolitan country at peace with the world. Similarly, Syria's most prominent enemies -- the Sunni leader Saad Hariri, the Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt and the Christian Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea -- all risk political and even physical elimination if Syria triumphs. Damascus, if it cannot impose its man or a cipher whose flimsiness would allow Syria to gain ground, will encourage its allies to create a political vacuum as leverage to subsequently push a favorite into office.

Syria is also waging an existential fight. The tribunal to convict those responsible for the assassination of Hariri has been approved under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, and several weeks ago the Dutch government agreed to locate the court in the Netherlands (the exact location as yet undecided). For Mr. Assad, whose regime is a prime suspect in the Hariri murder, the signs are ominous. By again bringing Lebanon under his authority, the Syrian president doubtless feels he can hamper the court's proceedings, perhaps until more favorable circumstances allow him to negotiate a deal similar to the one that got Libya's top leadership off the hook for the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, as well as that of a UTA French airliner in 1989.

In this context, diplomatic sources in Beirut note that the Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, and some European states, including the Vatican, had sought to delay formation of the tribunal. However, the progress on situating the tribunal suggests this effort failed.

That is why Mr. Assad might, after all, be more interested in holding a presidential election now, so Syrian allies in Beirut can gum up the tribunal's machinery before it's too late. In this scenario, Damascus would want a weak consensus candidate who stands somewhere in the middle. However, the nub of Syria's strategy could be to ensure that its comrades in Beirut, in collaboration with the Christian politician Michel Aoun, gain veto power in the government that will be formed after the election. That veto power -- plus a limp president and Syria's control over parliamentary procedure through the pro-Syrian parliament speaker -- would give Damascus substantial influence in Beirut, including over administrative decisions relating to the tribunal and to the implementation of the U.N. resolutions to disarm Hezbollah and maintain tranquility in the southern border area.

If Syria does prefer a president to a vacuum, this vulnerability must be exploited in coming weeks by those who want Lebanon fully freed of Syrian domination. Mr. Assad will play hardball, but he faces some heat. An Israeli air raid against Syria earlier this month, though reported to be directed against some sort of nuclear facility, may conceivably have been interpreted by Syria as an effort to intimidate it before Lebanon's election. In recent weeks, moreover, Saudi-Syrian hostility has escalated to unheard-of levels. Both King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt are fearful of Syria's close ties with Iran. For these two countries, a hegemonic, Islamist, Shiite Iran threatens their regional power and their Sunni-led regimes. This Sunni-Shiite rivalry happens to be playing itself out in Lebanon, where the results could have serious consequences for the Saudis and Egyptians.

The U.S. also knows the hazards of the Lebanese presidential election, and the Bush administration will not sign off on a president it regards as pro-Syrian. The difficult situation in Iraq, like Saudi- Syrian tensions, will probably make the administration tougher in opposing candidates it doesn't like. However, the European states -- France, Spain and Italy -- making up the bulk of the U.N. force in South Lebanon, worry that a void in Beirut might harm their soldiers. All have made it amply clear to Syria that it must change its ways in Lebanon, but they remain vulnerable on the ground, amid suspicion that Syria played a role, direct or indirect, in an attack last June that killed six troops of the Spanish U.N. contingent.

All sides, even Syria, would like to avoid a Lebanese vacuum at the end of November when Mr. Lahoud's time will be up -- if they can achieve their goals. The danger is that in the quest for compromise we might be heading toward a lowest common denominator on the presidency, thus giving Syria and its allies precisely what they want: a weak, ineffective president followed by a decisive advantage in any new government. That would only aggravate the current polarization in the country. Lebanon has the startling potential of becoming either the Middle East's salvation, or its nightmare. What happens here will have serious repercussions for what happens in the region as a whole.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Turning 'consensus' into a mortal threat

Turning 'consensus' into a mortal threat
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, September 20, 2007

Slowly but surely, the idea of a consensus president to succeed Emile Lahoud is gaining ground. Slowly but surely the speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, in the name of his "strategic alliance" with Syria, is helping Damascus revive its supremacy over Lebanese affairs. And slowly but surely, as Antoine Ghanem's assassination yesterday showed, preparations for that moment are coming with a grizzly price tag.

The hard-liners in the March 14 coalition, most prominently Walid Jumblatt, but also the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, are unhappy with the idea of a consensus president. This is putting considerable stress on the coalition, since Saad Hariri appears to be more amenable to Berri's project. Divided, March 14 will be much less able to defend against a presidential plan favored by Syria, therefore by the opposition. A consensus presidency appears to be precisely that, and, worse, has the merit of being appealing domestically, regionally, and internationally. After all, it is difficult to fault the idea of "compromise."

But what does compromise, or rather consensus, mean in the case of the Lebanese presidency? Jumblatt is not wrong in warning that a consensus candidate is bound to be a weak president. Why? Because the opposition will not sign off on someone who consolidates the gains of 2005 and enforces the agenda of March 14; but it also cannot impose a candidate of its own; therefore it will give a green light only to someone unable to harm its interests. If March 14 is so keen to avoid a vacuum imposed by Syria and enters into the logic of compromise, then the coalition, too, will be compelled to approve someone who does not threaten its interests. What will emerge is a president without teeth; water rather than wine.

As Berri hinted when he was interviewed by Marcel Ghanem on the "Kalam al-Nass" program last week, the next battle will be over the government. After a nonentity is elected, the opposition will have much leeway to work on strengthening its hand elsewhere. It will demand veto power in a new government (which is why Hizbullah will not abandon its alliance with Michel Aoun), and is likely to succeed in this because the spirit of conciliation will sweep everything before it. Once March 14 agrees to compromise over the election of a president, it will have no choice but to do the same for the Cabinet. And if it is true that Saad Hariri will be named prime minister, then expect the next government to be political rather than technocratic. That means it will be polarized and utterly unable to pursue a systematic agenda.

This will have alarming consequences. If the opposition is given veto power over government decisions and controls Parliament through Berri, then the majority will have lost the vital advantage it enjoyed through its hold over the Cabinet. March 14 would have sacrificed executive authority in order to gain a weak president. That's a trade the Syrians and their allies can happily live with. All in the name of arriving at a consensus.

Jumblatt has already indicated that he would not vote in favor of a consensus candidate. But Jumblatt's margin of maneuver is largely determined by two things: where the United States stands and where Saudi Arabia stands. The

Saudi-Syrian rift has allowed the Druze leader to raise the ante in recent weeks. According to unconfirmed reports, the Saudis recently asked Syria to endorse Nassib Lahoud as president. The Syrian refusal allegedly led to the last-minute Saudi cancellation of a visit to the kingdom by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.

However, will the Saudis stand tough? Ultimately, they may conclude that a consensus candidate is better than a political vacuum, which would only escalate Sunni-Shiite tensions. The kingdom's ambassador in Beirut, Abdul Aziz Khoja, has been especially sympathetic to Berri's endeavors. The Saudis, sensing the wind turning, may conceivably favor compromise.

What of the US? The Bush administration is still taking a tough line on the presidency: The new tenant of Baabda should not be someone who turns the clock back to where it was before 2005, when Syria ruled in Beirut. For the Americans, a Syrian return would also bolster Iran and Hizbullah. What it really would do, however, and one doesn't need the Americans to deduce this, is undermine United Nations Security Council resolutions on Lebanon, which have created a de facto international trusteeship over the country. What future would there be for Resolution 1701 in a country where the majority is paralyzed and Syria regains the upper hand? Or for Resolution 1559, which aims to prevent this?

Indeed, what would happen to the Hariri tribunal? The notion that the tribunal is a fait accompli must be seriously qualified. If March 14 falls into the opposition's headlock, the work of the tribunal can be impeded. Everything from its financing to the behavior of Lebanese judges would be affected. Worse, what is to prevent the leaking of judicial information to the Syrians on the prosecution's case? If it is true that Hariri seeks to head a new Cabinet, achieving this will severely hamper his ability to push the tribunal forward, because his job as prime minister will demand accepting myriad compromises merely to hold his unwieldy team together.

It's too early to assume that this scenario will play itself out. Hariri has no interest in alienating Jumblatt and Geagea on behalf of Nabih Berri. Nor are the forces working against such a project negligible. Someone like Michel Aoun, for example, sees few advantages in agreeing to a consensus candidate, since this would terminate his presidential bid. Indeed, convincing Aoun may prove a major obstacle for Hizbullah and Berri. Jumblatt and Geagea find themselves on the same wavelength as Aoun in resisting a presidential compromise, albeit for diametrically opposing reasons. As odd as it might seem, this might create an alliance of circumstance down the road if the consensus plan gains momentum.

The wild cards in this presidential ballet are the Europeans. Their fear of a void in Beirut is understandable, given the UNIFIL commitments. The Europeans seem to be heading toward backing a consensus candidate, regardless of whether Syria respects Lebanese sovereignty. Both the Saudis and the Americans, whatever their better instincts, might find themselves forced to follow the European lead if the alternative (one encouraged by the Syrian regime) is a dangerous split in Lebanon.

If a weak president is elected and the opposition gains veto power in the Cabinet, the Lebanese should start worrying. It would only be a matter of time before Lebanon finds itself where it was before Rafik Hariri's assassination. An axe would have been taken to the Cedar Revolution, much as it was yesterday to Antoine Ghanem.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Learning compromise from the Lebanon of Europe

Learning compromise from the Lebanon of Europe
By Michael Young
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Recently, amid reports that Hizbullah was creating closed-off security zones north of the Litani River and establishing a system of telephone lines parallel to that of the state, some politicians and commentators began mentioning Lebanon's partition. The majority accused Hizbullah of working toward de facto partition; the party threw the accusation back at the majority; and in a disturbing number of living rooms the idea of divvying the country up was discussed as something desirable.

Partition is always a measure of last resort, a divorce, and like most divorces it usually is very messy. In Pakistan and India, Palestine, Cyprus, and the former Yugoslavia, partition, whether successful or not, was invariably a bloody process. The partition of Lebanon would be so horrific given the mixtures of populations, so absurd for being imposed on a society that even during the height of the 1975-1990 Civil War never seriously contemplated formal and complete separation, that the debate itself seems to have merit only as a substitute for something far different: a statement that Lebanon's current social contract does not resolve the many problems facing this unstable, multi-communal society.

Rejecting partition should not prevent pondering such a new social contract. Recently, the Swiss Foreign Ministry invited Lebanese journalists to visit Switzerland and learn about the political order there. The point was not to advance a federal project in Lebanon, nor is that realistic at present, but to show how a once-divided society found its equilibrium through a system of political compromise. For if Lebanon is not the Switzerland of the Middle East, despite what the brochures say, Switzerland was very much the Lebanon of Europe for centuries - a land torn apart by rivalries between Catholic and Protestant French-speaking, German-speaking, Italian-speaking, and Romansh-speaking populations, all of them manipulated by surrounding European powers.

In many respects Switzerland is like Arabic grammar: all complex rules made even more complex by countless exceptions. The canton of Grisons, for example, is organized differently than the others, with its intricacy making it look like a miniature Switzerland; the city of Basel forms a different canton than its nearby countryside because of past enmity between the urban and rural populations; in the midst of the Catholic, French-speaking bastion of Freiburg lies the German-speaking, Protestant commune of Morat, where a representative of the town can still complain that in the cantonal Parliament, parliamentarians speaking in German are likely to be ignored by their French-speaking colleagues.

Only the wearing down of history, the acceptance of a common interest in unification, could turn that infernal hodgepodge into a nation. Lebanon is not at that historical moment yet. Perhaps its culture makes the creation of a stable power-sharing mechanism impossible. However, several principles buttressing the Swiss system might have a place in Lebanon. We can identify four of them: decentralization; the dissolution of religious identity through recognition of religious diversity; institutional flexibility; and the de-personalization, even the "de-ideologization," of politics.

Lebanon has already toyed with decentralizing administrative authority, and the idea has been integrated into the Taif Accord. In Switzerland, however, the move was much more radical, so that at both the cantonal and communal levels, communities have substantial power with respect to the federal government, which essentially deals with such "national" issues as defense, federal finances, and foreign affairs. Cantonal powers are being reduced somewhat, but that doesn't alter the fact that at the level of the commune or the canton, there is a substantial margin to decide on such vital issues as education, taxation, local development, and the like. This makes decision-making much more efficient, while bringing choices much closer to the population. That philosophy can apply just as well in Lebanon, where few are the real advantages of maintaining a centralized, cumbersome, Jacobin bureaucracy in Beirut, which remains the final arbiter on decisions taken at the distant local and regional levels.

A second Swiss innovation is that reinforcing religious and cultural diversity in a given space paradoxically helps water down differences rather than exacerbate them. Obviously, this takes time, but rather than imposing a single national identity on its people, as centralized states do, the Swiss confederation did the precise opposite. As a result, identity in the country is now defined much less by religious differences than by linguistic ones. While this obliges all Swiss to learn a second or even a third language to communicate with their countrymen, the result is that religion as a basis of identification has been, happily, transcended.

Nothing so clear-cut is likely to occur in Lebanon, where religious institutions still hold suffocating sway over the society. However, it is worth considering that as decentralization takes hold, the prospects for political polarization nationally will diminish, so that religious communities will become more confident of their status. This could erode their reliance on religion as a primary source of identity, since the priorities of individuals would shift to the local and regional levels.

A third Swiss notion to consider is that only flexible institutions can systematically absorb the contending stakes in the population. Constitutional amendments are frequent, in some regions the system actively encourages the consolidation of municipal lines, and religious symbolism is allowed in some places and not in others. Only a system that is agile can adapt to ambient diversity. In Lebanon, the Constitution has too often been altered for political reasons, however institutions remain inflexible, obdurate, so that virtually all adjustments are regarded as existential threats to one side or the other. This stifles renewal, preventing the society from adapting to new circumstances.

Finally, the most remarkable aspect of the Swiss system is that national political power resides in institutions more than in individuals. Federalism already disseminates much power to the cantonal or communal levels, but even at the federal level the system prevents an accumulation of power. The country's executive authority is a seven-member government reflecting the distribution of power in the national Parliament, with each member holding portfolios. Its president is the first among equals, serves for a year, and all decisions are taken by majority vote. Because decisions require the building of coalitions within this executive committee, because a president is rotated out of office within a year and is not regarded as the representative of Switzerland (the committee is, collectively), politics are necessarily a product of constant compromises. Personalities are important, but never paramount.

Within such a system ideology takes a back seat, since measures require deal-making with committee members of different political persuasions. A party can advance specific agendas, especially if its minister stays in office for years. However, because there is no government and opposition split, this takes time. Programs can never be imposed through political writ.

The de-personalization of politics is probably the most difficult objective for the Lebanese to achieve. It would require that institutions be stronger than political leaders and informal communal social structures. The Lebanese live in an ideological country, in an ideological region, where political ideas tend to be absolutist in nature. Lebanon is no Switzerland, but like the Swiss, the Lebanese know that diffusing state power is the key to coexistence in a plural society. That's a good start.