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.

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