Something radically new after Doha
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Whatever else is said about the agreement between Lebanon's leaders reached in Qatar on Wednesday, it will likely transform the country's political landscape. With the election of a president, alliances will change and with that we may see growing intricacy and reversals in the relationships between March 14 groups and opposition groups.
One thing that will not change, however, is the attitude of a majority of Lebanese when it comes to Hizbullah's behavior. Party officials have recklessly downplayed their armed occupation of Beirut two weeks ago, but no one, least of all the Sunnis, will soon forget what happened. So even if genuine politics return, those of compromise and shifting calculations, the structural inability of Hizbullah to coexist with a sovereign Lebanese state will not disappear. This may push domestic parties to acquire weapons for when Hizbullah again uses bullets to overcome its political shortcomings.
Like most compromises, the Doha agreement has created winners and losers on all sides - but remains nebulous enough so that the losers still feel they might gain from it. But it's difficult not to interpret what happened in Qatar as a definitive sign that Syria's return to Lebanon is no longer possible. No doubt the Syrians were in on the arrangement, and the suspicious delay in establishing the Hariri tribunal until early 2009 makes one wonder whether a quid pro quo is taking shape behind the scenes. Reports of a breakthrough on the Syrian-Israeli track, the Iraqi Army's entry into Sadr City, certainly with an Iranian green light, and signs that a truce may soon be agreed in Gaza, suggest a regional package deal may have oiled the Lebanese deal.
If there was one message emerging from the recent fighting, it was that Syria could not conceivably return its army to Lebanon without reconquering the country. Hizbullah committed several mistakes, of which two were especially egregious for Syria: The Sunni community, like the Druze and many Christians, are mobilized and will fight any Syrian comeback; and the Lebanese file is more than ever an Iranian one, because Hizbullah's destiny is at stake. Syria's allies, other than Hizbullah, were ineffective in Beirut and the mountains, in some cases even siding with the majority. This confirmed that Damascus has less leverage than ever when it comes to employing those smaller armed groups it completely controls.
The election of a president, even if he is the troubling Michel Suleiman, opens a new phase in Lebanon, one in which it is possible to imagine consolidating a state gradually breaking free from Syria's grip. That's the priority today, and has been the priority since April 2005 when the Syrian Army withdrew from the country. Whether Suleiman likes it or not, from now on he is a president, not a candidate maneuvering to become a president, which will require him to take a strong position on defending the sovereignty of the state both vis-ˆ-vis Syria and Hizbullah. That could either push him closer to the position favored by March 14 and most Lebanese, or it could damage him if he proves to be indecisive.
Will March 14 survive after this? It probably will in the face of an armed Hizbullah and Syria's foreseeable efforts to regain a foothold in Beirut. But the parliamentary majority may transform itself into a looser alignment, united on the large issues but with its leaders behaving parochially when it comes to elections and patronage. Once Suleiman is elected, he becomes an arbiter, an axial figure, in the political game. Politicians will have to position themselves either for or against him, as the president strives to build up a power base for himself in the state, particularly in Parliament. Expect Suleiman to use the army as his bludgeon, which would be regrettable, and expect tension between the officers and traditional politicians.
One unanswered question is who will be prime minister. If it is Saad Hariri, and it is difficult to imagine it won't be, the relationship between him and Suleiman will determine the face of Lebanon in the coming year before parliamentary elections. Neither of the two would relish a return to the discord between Emile Lahoud and Rafik Hariri. On top of that, if Saad becomes head of the government, he would benefit from using that position as a foundation to create networks of alliances transcending those of March 14. An electoral compact with the Armenians, particularly the Tashnag Party, would be a smart move, and could shift the balance in Beirut decisively away from Hizbullah, Amal and Syrian peons.
Another question is what happens to Walid Jumblatt? The Druze leader has placed himself at the center of March 14 - a key mediator and usually prime initiator of the coalition's policies. With a new president in place, Jumblatt's role will be largely determined by the relationship between Suleiman and his prime minister. If the prime minister is Hariri and Hariri and Suleiman work well together, Jumblatt could find himself isolated. In that case, and if history provides any lessons, he will soon be contesting Suleiman and the officers the president relies upon. Jumblatt also will have to keep Suleiman away from his Christian electorate in Aley and the Chouf. Expect him, in that case, to move closer to Christians as unenthusiastic about Suleiman: Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun.
Aoun is the great loser from a presidential election. It's not like the old general wasn't warned. He could have used his parliamentary bloc to be presidential kingmaker; instead he decided to obstruct everything in order to be elected himself. Now he has only dust to feed on, and in his final years he may find himself trying to protect his shriveling flock from the overtures of Suleiman, who, if he is clever, will pick up a large share of the disoriented Christians. One can already imagine most of Aoun's parliamentarians in the Metn gravitating toward Suleiman, knowing that their re-election depends on the goodwill of Michel Murr, who will be instrumental in moving the district the president's way.
Samir Geagea is in a better position than Aoun, both because of his close ties to Hariri and the Christian community's propensity to create counterweights to its presidents. However, his power in the Cabinet is uncertain and he too will have to fight off Suleiman's poaching among his voters. That's why his rapport with Aoun is bound to improve.
The matter of Hizbullah's weapons will be the first test for Suleiman once he is elected. The president risks losing the Sunnis if he comes out with a limp formula that sidelines any serious discussion of the topic. Now is the time to put the question of weapons on the table seriously, and Suleiman, as a former commander of the army, is in an ideal position to propose a sensible compromise. A second test for the president will be the choice of a new army commander. The head of military intelligence, George Khoury, is pining for the post, but given the army's indolence during the fighting in Beirut and Hariri's deep doubts about what happened, Suleiman may need all his dexterity to propose a successor who satisfies all sides.
Can Hizbullah be pleased with the result? It will now be able to say that it received veto power in the government and that the matter of its weapons was not discussed in Doha. It will also be able to convince its supporters that this was its latest victory after the government's decision to withdraw the two decisions last week that Hizbullah found offensive. But that may be only half the story. By so foolishly taking over Beirut militarily, the party only scared the other communities into sustained hostility. The two decisions the government went back on were decisions it could never have implemented anyway, so Hizbullah effectively revealed its coup plan at an inopportune time and for little gain. The party also has lost two cards: It has dismantled its downtown protest camp and won't be able to close the airport road for some time. Its weapons have become a subject of legitimate national discussion. And what kind of war can Hizbullah hope to wage against Israel in South Lebanon when most Lebanese, and quite a few Shiites, have no desire for war? Most importantly, Hizbullah has been about the negation of the state. If the post-Doha process is about the building of a state, then the party and that state will eventually clash.
Much will depend on Michel Suleiman. That the president will get only three ministers in a new Cabinet affirms he has serious credibility problems on all sides. Suleiman is an unknown quantity. Will he be a faithful partner of Syria, as when he was army commander? Or will he realize that he can be more than that? In many ways Suleiman is a peculiar creation as president, someone never destined to inherit the office. Now he has a chance to become the long-awaited patron of a new and consensual Lebanese political order. Let's hope he's up to it.