Thursday, April 30, 2009

Michel Sleiman, our election wild card

As expectations swing one way or the other on the results of Lebanon's upcoming parliamentary elections in June, an important variable still remains unknown: Will President Michel Sleiman try to affect the outcome, and if so toward what purpose?

Publicly, the president has put on a front of irreproachable objectivity. He will not sponsor candidates, he has said many times, but if a parliamentary bloc emerges that places itself under the high patronage of Michel Sleiman, then he would certainly not reject it. However, that can only be part of the story, because the political future of the president, like his effectiveness after June, will be intimately tied in to the results of the elections. To put it bluntly, Sleiman will gain most if he holds the balance in Parliament between a March 14 bloc on the one side and the alliance between Hizbullah, Michel Aoun, and Nabih Berri on the other.

What about the other possible scenarios? If March 14 wins a decisive majority, let's say of 70 seats or more, the president will have less room to maneuver, not least on the formation of the government, than if he holds the balance (though that would not necessarily be the case if he has enough parliamentarians allowing him to form a two-thirds majority with March 14, which is improbable). He will remain, much like today, a symbol of the state that the majority will be able to use against the Hizbullah-led opposition. Still, Sleiman will have some wiggling room to play both sides against each other, with the shortcoming that he will not control enough parliamentary seats to always do so very effectively.

The worst option for the president would be a decisive victory by the Hizbullah-Aoun-Berri alliance. This would permit the three blocs to alone choose the prime minister and hold a majority in the Cabinet. It might also mean, since Berri is certain to be re-elected as speaker of Parliament, that Sleiman could find himself uncomfortably isolated, given the likely affinities between the speaker and the prime minister, even if the latter happens to be Najib Mikati. At the same time, Sleiman would have to face a resurgent Michel Aoun doubtless seeking to marginalize the president as paramount representative of the Maronite Christians.

More generally, Sleiman realizes he can only thrive in a political context where the state gains in authority. That's unlikely to happen, however, if Hizbullah and its partners come out of the elections stronger. The primary aim of the party in the event of a victory will be to set up and impose on the state a formal understanding protecting its own weapons, expanding its political, geographical and military autonomy, and placing the state at the service of the "resistance." That is precisely what Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, always planned as his "defense strategy." This process will involve, from the Lebanese side, undermining Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon and, through that, chipping away at Resolution 1701, the (imperfect) instrument of Hizbullah's neutralization in South Lebanon.

For Sleiman, such an upshot is potentially disastrous. He could find himself as the head of a state increasingly a pariah in the eyes of the United Nations, that many countries, particularly the United States, might take a distance from because of Hizbullah's dominant status in it, and that, resulting from this, drops back more firmly into the lap of Syria and Iran. And even if the consequences are not so dire, the president would almost certainly have to manage a country caught in the crosswinds of inter-Arab rivalry (since Arab reconciliation would not outlast Hizbullah's transforming Lebanon into a confrontation state), similar to what is happening today in the bitter dispute between Egypt and Hizbullah.

If a centrist bloc holds the balance in Parliament and the government, however, Sleiman would be in a good position to take several measures that enhance his political role. He would have more authority over the national dialogue sessions to find a consensual fig-leaf of a solution for Hizbullah's weapons, given that the party will refuse to disarm. The president would also have more latitude to develop the Lebanese relationship with Syria, knowing full well that the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement would compel any prime minister, even Saad Hariri, to ease tensions with Damascus. This would serve an additional advantage for Sleiman by marginalizing Aoun, who hopes to remain the main Christian interlocutor with the Syrian regime, as well as with Iran.

The president also has another idea to strengthen his Christian bona fides. A theme he has been sounding for some time now, albeit in an understated way, is that Lebanon needs to redefine the prerogatives of the president. However, unlike Aoun and those in March 14 who want to drop the Taif Accord altogether, since it reduced presidential powers, Sleiman sees his proposal as part and parcel of Taif's implementation. This is a sensible idea, but a perilous one. On the one side, the president will provoke a negative reaction from both the Sunni and Shiite communities, who will regard any effort to amend Taif as opening a Pandora's Box on their own communal prerogatives. And it is equally perilous in that many Christians have been so mobilized against Taif, that the thought of using the accord in the Maronites' favor may initially be resisted.

However, there is no doubt that deep down, Maronites, and Christians in general, would welcome a more effective president constitutionally, and would back Sleiman if he took the lead in bringing this about. More importantly, Taif urgently requires full implementation and amelioration to make it more effective a political instrument. The only thing is, most Lebanese communities will refuse to discuss a new social contract for as long as one community, the Shiites represented mainly by Hizbullah, holds the guns.

For all these reasons, keep an eye on Sleiman in the coming month. The president is playing his cards close to his chest, but more than virtually everybody else he cannot afford to allow the vote to turn against him. It's for that reason that the image of a neutral president might hide a more subtle strategy. Michel Sleiman has walked through enough minefields in the past four years to prove that subtlety is not his weak point.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Video may have killed March 14's star

Walid Jumblatt is rapidly becoming a star of the portable telephone screen. After being filmed tongue-lashing his Druze brethren last February 15 because they had closed the Bhamdoun road following the murder of one of theirs by Amal sympathizers, he appears, this time, to have leaked a scene of himself speaking to Druze sheikhs at the home of Sheikh Muhammad Jawad Wali al-Din. In the gathering, Jumblatt referred to the Maronites as a "bad type" and derided the incapacity of the Sunnis to defend themselves against Hizbullah last May.

Was the video deliberately released by Jumblatt? Almost certainly yes. It would be easy for him to find out who was responsible for sending the film to the media, and no one would have dared incur Jumblatt's wrath, while also embarrassing Sheikh Wali al-Din in his own home, by doing so in a clandestine way. Jumblatt's statements were offensive and may have lost his political allies valuable seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The terse statement that he read on Wednesday, while it made some valid points, will unfortunately do little to attenuate Maronite anger. However, the more significant question is why did Jumblatt feel he had to say what he did, knowing very well what the consequences would be? The filmed scene itself provides several clues explaining this.

The meeting with the sheikhs (like the filming of the scene itself, and its distribution) was an opportunity for Jumblatt to reinforce an idea that he has long been trying to persuade the Druze to accept: the need for them to pacify their relations with the Shiite community. As Jumblatt explained, the Druze cannot afford a confrontation with the Shiites, especially at a time when the United States is opening to Iran, and the United Kingdom to Hizbullah. The community has limited military means to sustain a prolonged battle, particularly in coastal areas toward which the Shiites are spreading, and no effective allies to help defend them. Sheikh Wali al-Din endorsed Jumblatt's position, giving him the sanction he sought.

In that context, it's difficult to condemn Jumblatt. The Druze leader has been willing to alter his position on virtually everything in the past 32 years, usually through mesmerizing acrobatics, but he has consistently stuck to two principles: defense of the Druze, and defense of Jumblatti domination over the Druze. The seemingly volatile Jumblatt is among the most predictable of politicians if you understand what motivates him.

Less understandable, perhaps, is why he felt a need to insult the Maronites and disparage the Sunnis, or at least their capacity to fight. The explanation seems little different than his rationale for reconciling with the Shiites: defense of the community and his leadership over it. This time, however, the compulsory reconciliation is with the Syrian regime. It might be time to recognize that Jumblatt is preparing for a realignment on Syria, one that serves two purposes: to ensure that the Druze will not be isolated in an anti-Syrian posture while the rest of Lebanon moves toward friendlier relations with Damascus, amid signs that the Hariri tribunal will not soon provide leverage over President Bashar Assad; and to guarantee that Jumblatt himself will not pay with his life the price of the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement, as his father did in 1977.

In attacking the Maronites and the Sunnis, Jumblatt essentially sent a message that the Sunni-Maronite-Druze alliance that made the Independence Intifada against Syria possible in 2005 is no longer what it used to be. Was this an opening offering demanded by Syria of Jumblatt, given that the doors of Damascus are now open to everyone, as Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, put it some weeks ago? Who can say. However, when Mohammad Raad of Hizbullah declares that Jumblatt "has begun a genuine political reconsideration of his position," you know that something is amiss, and that it must involve the Syrians.

If Jumblatt's shift is defensible in terms of Druze survival, does that necessarily make it good policy? The political consequences of his statements will be grave, particularly in Baabda. In Zahleh, too, observers expect Elie Skaff to gain from Maronite retaliation against March 14. In the West Bekaa, the Sunnis have been angry with Jumblatt for some weeks now due to his alliance with Nabih Berri, and his latest comments may have repercussions on how they vote for Wael Abou Faour, even if he probably will be elected. In the Metn, the Kisirwan, and Jbeil, March 14 has just been made weaker, as Michel Aoun will be able to argue that those Maronites who allied with Jumblatt were all along despised by him.

However, more worryingly for Jumblatt, his statements have marginalized him within March 14. The Druze leader has always been a good triangulator - someone who gains from positioning himself between contending forces. He's lost that capacity now. Saad Hariri is emerging as the most forceful guardian of the March 14 political line; he has stuck to his Christian allies, despite the improvement in relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria; and in the end he will always be the primary interlocutor of the Shiites. It's difficult to see how Jumblatt, who could have played his game much differently, gains by finding himself lost in a no-man's land between Lebanon's different political forces. In fact, this exposes him much more to Syrian retaliation than ever before.

The thing is, Jumblatt's analysis of Christian, particularly Maronite, electoral mistakes is sound. The excessive representation of the Phalange and the Lebanese Forces in candidate lists, at the expense of non-party independents, will doubtless lose March 14 votes. The withdrawal last week of Nassib Lahoud from the race was highly symbolic for the majority, affirming that what remains of the ideals of the 2005 Independence Intifada has disintegrated into selfish partisanship. Though he was a presidential candidate of March 14, Lahoud bowed out because his allies, particularly the Phalange, neither consulted him on the list formation in the Metn nor were they likely to vote for him.

Jumblatt is rightly concerned that the mediocrity of the Maronite candidates might lose March 14 the elections. However, his statements only reinforce that likelihood. If the Druze leader is preparing to alter his approach with respect to Syria and Hizbullah, isn't it better for him and his partners to win the elections first and negotiate that change from a position of strength? The leaked video backfired, and now we may have to prepare for the grim fact, as King Abdullah of Jordan predicted this week, that the Hizbullah-led opposition will come out of the elections a winner.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Forgetting our civil war, but not quite

This week Lebanon commemorated the 34th anniversary of the start of its civil war, amid gestures designed to prevent that Moloch from ever returning. There were those demonstrating in favor of removing the sect from identity documents, while others, such as the Aounists, handed out fliers rejecting the very idea of a new domestic conflict. These initiatives, regardless of their shortcomings, were necessary, even useful.

However, what do we really know about our war? Certainly, for a certain generation, let’s say of 35 and over, we will sometimes find ourselves entering into conversations about the war at the dinner table, though never too much to spoil the evening. If you look around, you might find some books on the war years, particularly memoirs. However, when it comes to histories of the war written by Lebanese, they are not very many, perhaps less than a dozen or so are memorable, and almost none was actually written after 1990 when the war officially ended.

Much the same holds for cultural works. Of the films on the war, for example, only Maroun Baghdadi’s Haroub Saghira (Little Wars) and Hors la Vie (Out of Life), Ziad Doueiri’s West Beyrouth, and maybe two or three others that escape me, are both interesting and have reached a wider audience. In theater, Ziad al-Rahbani’s plays, particularly Shi Fashil (Failure) and Film Ameriki Tawil (Long American Picture), are classics, as is Elias Khoury’s Muthakaraat Ayoub (The Memoirs of Job), as directed by Roger Assaf.

Novels? Again, Khoury’s Al-Wujuh al-Bayda is excellent, Amin Maalouf’s Le Rocher de Tanios, which in many respects is really about the post-1975 civil war under the guise of a novel on the upheavals of 1832-1840, is commendable, if flawed. There are doubtless other good works that I haven’t read, but the difficulty in identifying very many means we cannot really speak of a national literature of war known to a general public.

That’s about it. What is it about our society that, over three decades after the start of the defining event of modern Lebanese history, makes us so incapable of producing a systematic corpus of work on our own conflict? A museum of memory is set to be opened at the Barakat Building in Sodeco, along the old Green Line, within two years’ time, with help from the city of Paris. That’s good news, if it comes off. However, like much else involving the war, there is considerable official lethargy in advancing such a project.

Best ignored, however, is the notion that Lebanon should have set up some kind of truth and reconciliation commission. This has long been a beef of those who say there never was closure on the war years. Indeed, there wasn’t, but an officially-sanctioned mechanism to arrive at some kind of consensual final committee document was always bound to fail. The Lebanese got over their conflict pluralistically, dissonantly, so that attempting to arrive at even a broadly-unified interpretation of the war would have been tremendously divisive. In some respects, the 1991 Amnesty Law, while much condemned, was a necessary mechanism. How else could we have realistically moved toward a postwar order, given that virtually all the political leaders, and many in society, in one way or another participated in or condoned the worst crimes of the war years?

So that is where recollections of Lebanon’s war lie today: between an averse public and an unhelpful state. However, is this really amnesia, as we so often hear? In some ways, yes. However, there was no amnesia in May 2008, when for a few days Lebanon returned to civil war. A mask of death descended on the society, and nobody really wanted to wear it. The Lebanese remembered, especially those old enough to remember. In the absence of wartime mnemonic devices elsewhere, we should rejoice that there are lingering museums of memory in our minds.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hizbullah, a Western fascination

The killing of four Lebanese soldiers on Monday reawakens some old thoughts about a phenomenon I've watched over the years, one that should not be underestimated in determining how Lebanon is understood and portrayed abroad: the devouring fascination with Hizbullah that many Westerners living in and writing about the country have developed, so that the party typically fills center stage in their Lebanese considerations.

The Hizbullah link to the soldiers is not a tenuous one. Michel Aoun remarked that the deadly attack in the Bekaa Valley was a family matter. Perhaps it was, however such brazenness was possible only because the gunmen were acting with two things in mind: that in areas ruled by Hizbullah the army is fair game, so that even the killer of the helicopter pilot Samer Hanna last August managed to escape punishment; and that much of the northern Bekaa, beyond its geographical seclusion, is frequently off limits to the state, and even in some areas to Lebanese citizens, because Hizbullah has simply decided that it should be so.

This realization feeds into another, namely how little we tend to read, or hear, any real condemnation of this rather astonishing state of affairs from Western journalists, analysts, academics and others who write about Hizbullah. Of course, not all journalism or analysis needs to express sharp opinions, but over the years a double standard has been on display: The Western observer will often approach Hizbullah on its own terms, with laudable and reasonable objectivity; but he or she will almost never show the same detachment when addressing the Lebanese political system, which is routinely criticized as archaically sectarian and corrupt.

Where Hizbullah fascinates, and fascinates justifiably for being an interesting sociological phenomenon, the Lebanese political system, despite its paradoxical liberalism, tends to repel many Westerners for being an ersatz version of what they know, an inferior, aberrant knock-off of their own societies. I still recall over a year ago being asked to discuss Lebanon with students attending a course in Beirut. I had about an hour and a half to answer their questions, and an hour and 15 minutes of that time was devoted to Hizbullah. "Lebanon is more than Hizbullah," I feebly said at the end, but I had gotten the message.

Why this interest in Hizbullah, and why does this interest quite often morph into measured, even unmeasured, attraction? I can offer up several hypotheses, not mutually exclusive. First of all, for a Western journalist or analyst, Hizbullah is an easy story to sell to a publication or think tank. There are guns and strange bearded men, and both will grab an editor back home and a writer eager to show off his access to a closed world that is vaguely menacing. There is the legitimate fact that Hizbullah plays a definable role in Lebanon, so that it makes no sense not to cover the party. However, when was the last time a journalist sold a story on the inherent pluralism in Lebanese sectarianism? Once you've woken the editor up and told him that this defines Lebanon more accurately than Hizbullah does, he'll still choose the riveting clarity of a Hizbullah peg.

Hizbullah also benefits from the underlying contempt among many Westerners for the baroque Lebanese system itself, all nods and winks and clandestine compromises. Here is a party that can build institutions, that means what it says and says what it means, and that in many respects defines itself against the duplicity of the traditional politicians. More interestingly, it speaks for a once marginalized community, so that it presents several ingredients to spur Western sympathy and appreciation: a social cause, methodicalness in the pursuit of its objectives, an institutional structure transcending the narrow retail politics of most Lebanese leaders, rhetorical precision, and purported honesty.

And then there is authenticity. Hizbullah is widely seen as representing a truer Lebanon than the Lebanon of confused identities lying outside the party's realm. Remember how the media in 2005 translated the emancipation movement against Syria. For three weeks after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the story was that of a liberal Lebanon revolting against an illiberal Syria and its Lebanese peons, a rare occasion during the post-Civil War period when that narrative dominated. However, its fragility was highlighted on March 8, when Hizbullah organized its mass demonstration at Riad al-Solh square. Suddenly, interpretations shifted. The "real Lebanon" had spoken, observers said, and it had spoken with verve, so that the anti-Syrian demonstrators of the weeks before, with their Occidental pretensions and designer clothes, were now dismissed as creations of the Western media. Then March 14 came, confusing the observers further and resurrecting the liberal plot line, if not for very long.

The irony is that the very attributes that make many Westerners so belittle the Lebanese political and social order in Hizbullah's favor are actually present in Hizbullah in more concentrated ways. The Lebanese system is archaic, undemocratic and sectarian? Well then what do you call a Shiite Leninist organization, led by a leader who will probably remain in office for life, that calls itself the Party of God? And what reaction do one's Western liberal instincts provoke when that centralized religious party glorifies violent self-sacrifice and makes permanent armed struggle a centerpiece of its ideological mindset, mainly on behalf of an autocratic clerical regime in Iran, its Lebanese authenticity notwithstanding? As for corruption, those who see Hizbullah as spotless should learn a trifle more about the party's illicit networks, or those of individuals close to the party. In that regard, we can say that Hizbullah is as Lebanese as anyone else.

Hizbullah is an essential part of Lebanon, a reflection of the country's complex personality and a distillation of its flaws. That it is worthy of study is obvious, but only if one grasps two caveats: that the party, while an anomaly institutionally, so that it can implement many of its totalistic ambitions in an essentially pluralistic society, does not really represent a refreshing contrast to the less admirable aspects of Lebanon; and that Hizbullah remains a slim prism through which to comprehend Lebanese society. Indeed, to know the party, or to claim to, often seems an excuse some Westerners have of avoiding discovering the wider reality all around it.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Syria will win Lebanon's elections

Two months away from Lebanon's elections, we can begin to discern clarity amid the vapors of boiling ambition. Over 700 candidates are registered to contest 128 parliamentary seats, but the real story lies elsewhere. Whether it is the March 14 coalition and its allies that wins, or the March 8 coalition with the Aounists, the forthcoming Parliament will be much friendlier to Syria than the current one is, representing a marked return of Damascus' hegemony over Lebanon.
There are several reasons for this, both regional and local. Regionally, the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement has fundamentally altered the nature of the political confrontation in Lebanon. Following the summer war of 2006, the Saudis sought to isolate Syria (and with it Iran) in Lebanon and the Arab world.

However, that effort largely failed. The Saudis, instead, found themselves isolated as they and the Egyptians proved unable to derail the Arab League summit in Damascus in March 2008, before later seeing another rival, Qatar, host Lebanese reconciliation talks in May, after Hizbullah's military onslaught against western Beirut. The Gaza conflict, which confirmed the extent to which Damascus and Tehran were able to play a spoiler role on the Palestinian front, persuaded the Saudis to engage President Bashar Assad in order to break Syria off from Iran, even if there is great skepticism in Riyadh as to whether that will work.

Skepticism or not, the Saudis are fulfilling their end of the bargain, particularly in Lebanon. In practical terms this appears to be leading, for example, to an alliance in Tripoli between Saad Hariri, Najib Mikati, and, if it goes through, Mohammad Safadi. The Saudis want to unify Sunni ranks, but in a way where the Syrians will be able to have their say with the Lebanese. That's why, whoever wins the elections, the next prime minister is likely to be Mikati, whom the Syrians trust but who won't stray away from the Saudis or from the Lebanese Sunni consensus.
The first to understand the implications of this shift was Walid Jumblatt. The Druze leader has irritated many in March 14 by moving closer to the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, while persistently criticizing his own allies.

However, Jumblatt knows that Berri is returning as speaker, so he sees benefits in maintaining a good relationship with him, as he does in using this to calm Druze-Shiite tensions. But a longer-term explanation for Jumblatt's behavior is that he now needs a conduit to Damascus, and Berri provides one. Kamal Jumblatt paid with his life for the Syrian-Saudi agreement over Lebanon in 1976, which left him cut off politically and vulnerable to assassination. Walid doesn't want to repeat that.

Whether Jumblatt will once again visit Damascus is an open question. But it seems highly improbable that he will adopt as hostile a position against Syria as he did in the past four years. With Saad Hariri bringing Mikati on board and perhaps having to accept him as the next prime minister; with Jumblatt realigning on Syria and strengthening his ties to Berri, who with his bloc will represent a substantial Syrian stake in the system, alongside Hizbullah, the Assad regime will find that a substantial share of Muslim parliamentarians either support close ties with Syria or are in no position to effectively oppose them.

What of the Christians? Michel Aoun may lose seats, but he is not likely to lose very many to Syria's adversaries. The Lebanese Forces and the Phalange are optimistic about their chances, and have been rapacious in their demands. However, in several constituencies their candidates are dependent on volatile electoral alliances. In the Chouf, the Metn, and perhaps even Beirut 1 if their Armenian Orthodox nominee stays in the race, the Lebanese Forces candidates are at the mercy of larger power blocs with whom they are not particularly close. The same holds for the Phalange in Tripoli, Aley, and Zahleh, while even in the Metn the party's expected candidates, Sami Gemayel and Elie Karami, are not guaranteed a victory if there is under-the-table collusion against one or both of them.

As for the Metn, if Aoun recedes, the likelihood is that it is Michel Murr who will gain. As a supporter of President Michel Sleiman, and given his past, he has no quarrel with Syria. As for Kisirwan and Jbeil, Aoun's losses, if any, will mainly add to Sleiman's quota. And in the event Aoun retains his seats in both districts, that will suit Syria just fine. That's why, for example, Aoun's dispute with Berri over the Christian seats in Jezzine and Zahrani may continue without a resolution. Whether it is Aoun or Berri who wins, the Syrians will come out ahead in the end, even if they lean toward Berri. As for Hizbullah, does it really want to see Aoun and the Christians reaffirming themselves politically in Jezzine, behind the new defense line the party is building against Israel?

Bashar Assad has promised that the June election will be Syria's ticket back into Lebanon, and he appears to be on the road to fulfilling that promise. The Saudis have made their peace with him, as have the Egyptians, and the Americans are too preoccupied with Afghanistan and Iraq to concern themselves with halting Syrian advances in Lebanon. As long as the southern border remains quiet, there is little to trouble the international community.

With respect to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, prosecutor Daniel Bellemare will almost certainly not issue an accusation before 2010, because his predecessor wasted two years by not moving his investigation substantially forward. That's plenty of time for Assad to make himself relevant again internationally and to ensure, from Beirut, that Lebanese judges on the tribunal will think twice before pointing the finger at Syria. For all intents and purposes, the momentum of the Hariri legal case has been lost, and given renewed Saudi friendliness toward Syria, we shouldn't expect the Hariri family to complain about this.

The March 8-March 14 dichotomy no longer seems appropriate today, despite the furious debate in Lebanon over who will win next June. Whoever wins, Syria will emerge on top, its crimes forgotten and its interests protected. That may sound benign when expressed this way, but those interests will certainly expand in the future, to Lebanon's detriment. So much for Lebanon's so-called Cedar Revolution, never a revolution in the first place, and now as exposed as any old tree to being cut down.