Thursday, September 18, 2008

No dialogue in Lebanon’s mean streets

The national dialogue is on track again, albeit with its next session delayed until November 5, no doubt so that everyone can first absorb the results of the United States presidential election. But on the ground, far from the eyes of the politicians but not their reach, the situation is more troubling. As President Michel Sleiman prepares for the next round of talks, his priority must be to address what is happening in the streets, otherwise this could jeopardize the dialogue itself.

Take this incident last week on Mar Elias Street. A friend had gone there with someone to have an after-movie dessert. As the pair was ordering, a young man came up and demanded that they show him their identification cards. My friend refused, and the young man called out to several comrades. Within minutes my friend was surrounded, his friend was being hit, and the two were being shouted at. Only when the stranger realized that my friend knew people from the Sharafeddine family, which he said he belonged to, did he calm down and try to make amends for his belligerent behavior. He said he belonged to the Amal movement and that "conditions" made it necessary for him and his men to be vigilant.

One could dismiss this as an isolated event, were it not for the fact that there is an increasing number of stories circulating in western Beirut describing similar such behavior. In Ras al-Nabeh, there are problems almost every day of that nature. In the strip of mixed Sunni-Shiite quarters between Mar Elias and the Bishara al-Khoury boulevard, groups of young men, clearly those who fought in the street battles last May, spend their evenings on the sidewalks checking out whoever walks by. A surprising number of journalists or writers who sympathize with the March 14 coalition, most of them Muslims, have moved to eastern Beirut because they feel unsafe in the other half of the capital. And some March 14 activists cannot even live in their own homes because people regularly drive by, inquire about their whereabouts, and insult them.

Since May, the streets of western Beirut have been effectively controlled by those parties that won the round of fighting at the time. That doesn’t mean that a night out on the town is fraught with danger. By and large everything appears normal on the surface, particularly in the quarters around Ras Beirut. But when a journalist from a pro-Hariri newspaper tells you that two unidentified men boldly sat in on a recent interview with him conducted at a cafe in the early evening on Hamra Street, his point is more subtle: Those who want to engage in intimidation can do so with no fear that the security forces or the army will intervene.

The leaders of the political parties controlling western Beirut may or may not be actively encouraging their partisans to apply coercive behavior, but it is plain that they are doing nothing to prevent it. The reason appears to be that in the run-up to parliamentary elections, the March 8 parties, particularly Hizbullah, Amal, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Marada, want to be sure they can shape electoral outcomes in their favor. This may come by exerting pressure on voters, or by creating tension to prevent voting. The reality is that even outside western Beirut, in districts that will decide the balance in Parliament, including Sidon, Koura, the Western Bekaa, Zahleh and Baabda, the opposition has great leeway to manipulate developments on the ground to get the results it seeks.

The politicians may spend months discussing a "defense strategy," but conditions in Lebanon will be determined to a large extent by those strains little seen or heard. For example, the reason that Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party and Hizbullah met under the auspices of Talal Arslan earlier this week was to normalize a worrisome relationship between the two Shiite villages in the Aley district, Qomatiyeh and Kayfoun, and the Druze communities around them, particularly in Baysour where Saleh al-Aridi was assassinated last week. The Druze will not forget that last May Hizbullah temporarily took over Hill 888 overlooking Aley because its combatants were infiltrated through Kayfoun.

The brief breakout of fighting this week in Taalbaya, on the road between Shtaura and Zahleh, showed how another tinderbox has been left to fester. The army is present in Taalbaya, but the disposition of the communities makes enforcing security difficult. Shiites and Sunnis live among each other in much of the town, with Shiites controlling the high ground and able to reinforce themselves militarily from the village of Hazzerta, located above Zahleh. There is no easy way to prevent youths from insulting each other in Taalbaya’s streets, when those streets happen to be right outside their homes. That is why small incidents can transform themselves into major confrontations at the drop of a hat.

The only way to neutralize these and other similar flashpoints is to go to the source of the problem, at least where this is feasible. Resolving the problem in Taalbaya will not force thugs off the streets of western Beirut. However, if the March 8 parties, who are the ones flaunting their militias, agree to a national plan to bring calm to the country, then places like Taalbaya and Kayfoun will fall in line. But all the signs are that the parties’ aim is precisely the opposite. After all, it is useful to deploy men with guns close by when discussing such issues as the "defense strategy," Palestinian weapons outside the camps, relations with Syria, Lebanese financing for the Hariri tribunal, parliamentary elections, and a host of other contentious issues sure to divide politicians in the months ahead.

That’s why if Sleiman wants to sponsor a truly successful national dialogue, he will have to, first, prove that the state controls the streets, all the streets. But if the state cannot do so, if it cannot even impose its writ in areas of Beirut, then what credibility will it have when presenting its army as a legitimate alternative to Hizbullah’s independent army? Of course that’s precisely the question Hizbullah wants us to ask.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sunni dynamics shift in the North

Sunni dynamics shift in the North
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, September 11, 2008

The headline in the pro-opposition Al-Akhbar newspaper on Tuesday described the reconciliation in Tripoli as an event that "broke" the authority of the Hariri camp. The statement was typically partisan. It was also, as they say, correct but not true. Inter-Sunni dynamics in the North are changing, perhaps to Saad Hariri's momentary disadvantage, but it would be a mistake to write off his supremacy in the district just yet.

In recent weeks, the implications of the tension in Tripoli have alarmed a number of Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Saudi ambassador, Abdel-Aziz Khoja, visited the city in late August, and a few days later the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmad Abu al-Gheit, arrived with a particularly anxious message that the situation there needed to be brought under control. What Riyadh and Cairo apparently feared was that Syria would exploit developments in the northern part of the country in order to return to Lebanon militarily - and more specifically to provoke dissension in the Sunni community.

That sense of urgency is why Saad Hariri took the lead in heading to the North last weekend and making sure he came away with some sort of arrangement to calm the mood on the ground. Hariri not only sought to rally his power base in the North, he also implemented a policy that both the Saudis and Egyptians viewed as an absolute priority.

But what about Syria? One line of reasoning is that the agreement in Tripoli was to Syria's disadvantage. That's true in part, assuming the agreement holds. However, the Assad regime may yet find some advantages in it. The apparent Saudi and Egyptian intention of setting up a political big tent to unify the Sunnis in the North means that some of Syria's Sunni allies might soon be offered a path back into Parliament. Damascus may have been denied a motive to re-enter northern Lebanon, an action always full of risks in the first place, but that doesn't mean the solution today won't bring them unexpected benefits.

Take Omar Karami, the former prime minister. Karami, who had all but disappeared from the radar screen earlier this year, was among those who benefited most from the Tripoli fighting. He deployed his gunmen to Bab al-Tebbaneh to confirm his Sunni bona fides, which he needed to do after the May onslaught in Beirut by his ally Hizbullah. Karami was not alone among the Tripoli politicians in using the fighting to burnish his sectarian credentials, and his actions may have paid off. His meeting with Saad Hariri earlier this week looked like a political comeback of sorts. Because it occurred against a backdrop of Saudi and Egyptian prodding, it may also have bought the former prime minister a measure of regained Arab legitimacy, following his recent trip to Egypt.

Karami has remained on good terms with the Saudis, but it was hardly a surprise on Wednesday to hear that he had visited Damascus. The Syrians probably wanted to ensure that Karami, big Sunni tent or not, remains loyal to them and does not lean too far toward the Saudis. That may also explain the laudatory portrait of Karami in Wednesday's Al-Akhbar, written by the newspaper's editor, Ibrahim Amin, who often relays messages from Hizbullah. In reminding the former prime minister of how ardently he has defended the resistance, in praising him for his Arab nationalist stances, the paper also seemed to be sending him a veiled warning that he had better not stray too far off the reservation.

Karami will have to walk a fine line in the months ahead between his commitments to Syria and to a Tripoli electorate hostile to Syria. Whether he succeeds will determine the role he plays in elections next year. But as things look now, a big tent strategy backed by the Saudis makes more likely a unified list in Tripoli, which means Hariri will have to surrender some of his parliamentarians. The Future Movement leader cannot be too happy with that. It might also oblige him to ally himself with Najib Mikati and others friendly to Syria, over whom he has little control.

The Tripoli reconciliation was also disadvantageous to Hariri for two other reasons. First, it took place under the auspices of the mufti of the North, Malek al-Shaar, so that Hariri looked like just another party to the conflict rather than the dominant politician in the North that he is. Indeed, this was the point Rifaat Eid, the son of Ali Eid, the head of the Alawite Arab Democratic Party, drove home in a conversation with me, namely that any reconciliation could only take place under the mufti's authority.

A second development Hariri must have groaned at was that Prime Minister Fouad Siniora came out of the pacification process also looking like one of its sponsors, rather than as an emanation of Hariri's Future Movement. It has long been the case, but it is now clearer than ever, that Siniora is not Hariri's man, and that if he is placing himself under any authority it is that of the Saudis. This was plain on Monday, when the prime minister said he would be examining with Tripoli representatives development projects for the city, to be financed by Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia. Siniora is positioning himself as a broker of aid to Tripoli, which brings with it patronage power and could help him anchor his own independent political position in the Sunni community.

But is it curtains for Saad Hariri? Hardly. There are still many months before the elections, and plenty of time for the reconciliation process to break down. That's not to imply that Hariri is banking on conflict and polarization. However, if tension resumes in the North, for example because of renewed Syrian interference, the big tent strategy may collapse and the people of Tripoli and Akkar will doubtless rally to Hariri's side.

There is also the question of money. Which parties dispense assistance in the North will be essential. Siniora may be trying to reserve a place for himself and the government in the aid process, but Hariri still has a decisive advantage on the ground over most other political forces, and there are no signs the Saudis have cut him off. That's why, if he plays his cards right, Hariri can use the current tranquility to regain his momentum. For starters he needs to overhaul the Future Movement's networks in the North and personally involve himself in whatever goes on.

Hariri made a mistake in not going to Tripoli immediately after the May events to underline that even though he had lost in Beirut, he could readily compensate in the North. He erred in allowing a situation to develop in which the Saudis and Egyptians saw a need to look beyond him and sometimes circumvent him. But there remains sympathy for the Hariri family in the North, and substantial enmity toward Syria. Saad Hariri's political destiny may well be determined by what happens in Tripoli, a city not his but that he may soon have to make his.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Beware, the Friends of Bashar are here

Beware, the Friends of Bashar are here
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, September 04, 2008

Not very long ago, you will remember, there was the Friends of Lebanon group of states, whose declared aim was to defend Lebanese sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence, democratic institutions, and what have you. Meeting today in Damascus is a new fraternity, the Friends of Bashar. It includes the emir of Qatar, the prime minister of Turkey, and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and their aim is to ensure that the Assad regime remains in power and breaks out of the international and regional isolation imposed on it after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

Sarkozy has proven to be the most destructive of opportunists here. After having negotiated a mediocre agreement in Georgia that allowed Russia to pursue its military actions there under the guise of defensive measures, yesterday in Damascus the French president waded into the Shebaa Farms imbroglio, with the same ostentation and shallowness. Sarkozy's true purpose was plain on Tuesday when he declared that peace in the Middle East "went through France and Syria," and that his aim was to see Syria "regaining its place in the concert of nations."

Months ago, after Michel Sleiman's election, the French set some conditions for their opening to Syria, particularly the establishment of diplomatic relations between Damascus and Beirut. We're still waiting. This was largely a pretense. Sarkozy never had any intention of turning those conditions into obstacles blocking French overtures to Bashar Assad, because he is so keen to fill some role in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Lebanon is an irritant on that front. The Syrians want their peace talks with Israel to be a highway to Washington; Sarkozy is willing to broker that rapprochement if France is given a seat at the negotiating table too; however Syria will only play seriously on the peace front if it can reimpose its hegemony over Lebanon; therefore France will look the other way as Assad rebuilds in Beirut what he was made to abandon in 2005.

For the moment the United States refuses to go along with this, and has informed the French it would continue isolating Syria. But that may be nearing its end because the Bush administration is nearing its end. A new administration, whether Republican or Democrat, will probably alter US policy toward Syria, and those in Lebanon concerned with their country's sovereignty should take heed. President Michel Sleiman has traveled to France, then to Damascus, and this week flew to Qatar to yet again thank Emir Hamad for sponsoring the Doha agreement. However, a visit to Washington at this stage is necessary, because Sleiman needs to urgently offset the influence of the Friends of Bashar.

Sleiman apparently intends to fly to Washington in the near future. However, the president has no desire to transform this into leverage against Syria, nor would that be sensible at this stage. George W. Bush is leaving next January, so whatever he commits to might only last that long. However, and by the same token, Sleiman would make a mistake if he failed to use the trip to prepare for when Bush is gone. If the point is just to get a White House photo-op, then Sleiman might as well ask that his picture be taken with a cardboard effigy of Bush, because the US president is not only a lame duck, he's now virtually a dead one.

Where Sleiman would gain is by building up networks of relations in the US Congress, in the presidential campaigns, and in the think-tank community, which has been active, reprehensibly so, in encouraging American policymakers to open up to Syria. In fact, Bashar Assad has had a battery of promoters and objective allies in such places as the United States Institute of Peace, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, and the International Crisis Group, to name only them, all of which have urged engagement of Damascus, all of which have willfully ignored or papered over Syria's role in the Hariri assassination.

However, is Sleiman willing to go through with such an effort? Who in his entourage might be able to follow up on his contacts with the Americans? These are all questions the president will need to answer before embarking on his American tour, unless his plan is to avoid making the journey count for very much. And if that is indeed the case, then we would have to assume that little has changed in the Syrian-Lebanese relationship since 2005, with Lebanon's foreign policy still regarded by decision-makers in Beirut as a dispensation of the Assad regime.

Sleiman, if he hopes to plot a course even mildly independent from Syria, must make his American trip work. But the Syrians have a head start. The Friends of Bashar have repeatedly shown how little concerned they are by Syrian behavior in Lebanon - or more accurately, how little concerned they are by Syria's pursuing its destabilization of the country while imposing red lines on elected officials, on ministers, and on military and security appointees. Sleiman needs to guarantee that he has enough pull in the US so that come next year, if a new administration talks to the Assad regime, Lebanon will not once again be Syria's meal.

Why is it so difficult to be optimistic? Perhaps because Sleiman has a lot going for him politically, but still seems too timid by half. Because he seems so keen to market Syria to the world, as he did last week when he urged the international community to "open up" to Damascus, without anyone having requested such altruism. And because the Friends of Bashar are doing their damnedest to save the skin of a man who has never shown any sign of recognizing Lebanese independence, while the Lebanese don't seem to have a clue as to who will save their skins.