Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Will the real March 14 please stand up

March 14 approaches and we can already smell the burns as different members of the majority chafe against each other in their pre-election jockeying for space on candidate lists. It’s in moments like these that it is useful to ask what the March 14 coalition is really all about, and how it fits into the reality of Lebanese political life.

There are two very different ways of looking at March 14. It can be seen as the embodiment of a liberal ideal of cross-sectarian amity, a desire for political renovation, but also for justice in the trial of Rafik Hariri’s killers (and the killers of all the others assassinated in the past four years). Those, in many ways, were the sentiments picked up here and there at the historical March 14 demonstration of 2005, and that continue to be expressed, in disjointed ways, by the orphans of that day.

A more restricted definition of March 14 is that it is a collection of disparate political forces joined pragmatically against a return of Syrian control over Lebanon. That fear alone is what keeps its different constituents together. This view is far less idealized than the first, but it is probably truer; it is also why March 14 has lasted for so long.

Four years after the Independence Intifada, let’s look back for a sobering moment at what really happened then. Were the month-long demonstrations against Syria spontaneous, democratic expressions of a desire for emancipation? Doubtless they were, for a moment, which is what made that moment so special. However, they were also, perhaps mainly, a culmination of what began as a revolt of a part of the political elite in defense of its parochial interests – one not so very different than previous revolts in Lebanese history. Had a rump of the political class not challenged Syria’s extension of Emile Lahoud’s mandate, Hariri would not have been killed and the Lebanese would have stayed home in 2005.

For a month the public slipped out from under the grip of the leaders into something looser and more uninhibited. Once the March 14 demonstration was over, however, the politicians took matters in hand again in preparation for the elections. Many people later saw this as a betrayal, but there was something terribly naïve in that view. There never was a “revolution” in the Cedar Revolution, nor does Lebanese society lend itself to such a high aspiration. The elections were about interests, calculated by leaders emerging from the sectarian recesses of society, whose adage was balance rather than abrupt new departures.

Once we understand that, we can better understand what is going on today, as March 14 prepares for the June elections. The game is, quite simply, about defining one’s political weight along the margins of the coalition – and this applies as much to those in the opposition. Consequently, we might do best to set aside for a moment illusions about the lasting nature of the March 14-opposition bipolarity before June. What the elections this year will likely confirm is that the fiercest contests will be over power within the two political alignments, rather than between them.

It will be about whether Walid Jumblatt can retain the influence he has over the majority, while also juggling his requirements to protect the Druze and his control over them; it will be about whether Saad Hariri can use his sway to advance his preferred agenda among his allies; it will also be about whether Samir Geagea or Amin Gemayel can better claim to speak for the Christians of March 14; it will be about whether Hezbollah can use its share of seats to defend itself amid growing regional efforts to contain Iran and its extensions; it will be about whether Nabih Berri can loosen the Hezbollah stranglehold around his neck, and about whether Michel Aoun can persuade his Shiite allies to save him from evaporation.

The regional catchphrase is defense against Iran. That is the Saudi priority, and the American one. Syria sits uncomfortably in the middle, not wanting to make decisive choices vis-à-vis its Iranian friends, but also unwilling to jeopardize better relations with the Arab world and the United States merely to stick with Tehran without payback. Nor are the Syrians pleased to see Lebanon becoming more an Iranian card than a Syrian one. So Damascus will preserve its relationship with Hezbollah, but it also wants the party to respond to Syrian stimuli above all else.

The outcome of these changes will define whether March 14 survives or not. If Syria remains a threat, the coalition will endure to fight another day; if the Syrians are looking for an “acceptable” say in Lebanon, but promise not to otherwise murder its leaders and use violence against Syria’s opponents, a new modus vivendi may be reached. But don’t hold your breath. Just as you would be wrong to overplay the idealism in March 14, you would do poorly to underplay the yearning of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to regain in some way his former Lebanese inheritance. The months ahead will be a pre-election interregnum, during which everyone will watch everyone else. Expect no finalities until the masks of duplicity fall.

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