Thursday, June 25, 2009

No one will weaken this turbulent priest

The barrage of verbal attacks organized by the opposition against Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir is worrisome. Sfeir's partisans are unlikely to close the airport road or assail opposition neighborhoods, but they should at least be aware that this concerted campaign, whatever the intentions behind it, mainly serves to discredit the one individual who has most consistently defended the Lebanese state and its sovereignty.

The opposition has been incensed with Sfeir for some time. His endorsement of a "centrist" bloc for Parliament was viewed by Michel Aoun as a way of strengthening both President Michel Sleiman and March 14 at his expense. Hizbullah agreed, and during the recent elections the party voted massively in Aoun's favor in the Jbeil and Baabda districts, where centrist candidates had the best chance of making a breakthrough.

It is the patriarch's statement on the eve of the elections that riled the opposition most, however, provoking a riposte from Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Sfeir said on June 6, "Today we are facing a threat to the Lebanese entity and its Arab identity, requiring alertness." This reference was seen by the opposition as a warning to Christian voters that Iranian influence in Lebanon would rise if the opposition won. Since then, a bevy of opposition politicians, many of them Maronites, have echoed Nasrallah in criticizing the patriarch. The latest reaction came on Monday from the vice president of the Higher Shiite Council, Abd al-Amir Qabalan, who asked for "clarifications" on the comment.

This request for clarification was amusing. Sfeir could not have been clearer. However, there remains some question as to whether the patriarch's words were as decisive as many believe. We don't do opinion polls on these things (a relief after the shoddy surveys of the pre-election period), but at best Sfeir only hardened doubts that Nasrallah and his Iranian sponsors had already created in Christian minds. Perhaps Qabalan should ask for clarification from Nasrallah about what he meant when he described May 7 as a "glorious day;" or from Nasrallah's deputy, Naim Qassem, when he said that Hizbullah would "arm, arm, and arm," regardless of what the United Nations said; or from Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who pointed out that an opposition victory "would change the situation in the region and would create new fronts for strengthening the resistance." Sfeir would not have had the impact that he did on voters had not these startling declarations been issued first.

The Aounists in particular have been hypocritical above and beyond their usual norm on Sfeir. For example, an Aounist candidate, at a private dinner before the elections, roundly complained that Nasrallah's "glorious day" speech would lose him and his colleagues the elections. But this week he was on television complaining about Sfeir's behavior, adding that he was shocked to see the way voters during his campaign stops were expressing their fears of an opposition victory. But if he was disturbed by what Nasrallah said, surely his voters could be as well.

Then you have to wonder about those Aounist parliamentarians who once made Bkirki their second home, particularly in the days of the Qornet Shehwan gathering. Today, not one of them can work up enough nerve to make a public statement in defense of Sfeir, for fear of annoying Michel Aoun. They say cowardice has no color, but in this case it's bright orange.

The patriarch merely confirmed the deep misgivings that an increasing number of Lebanese have about the opposition's project, which they see as a lot of empty wrapping around a very firm goal: defense of Hizbullah's weapons. Aoun has lost much ground in convincing Christians that he can stand up to Hizbullah, that his so-called change and reform program should be taken seriously, and that he can yet unite the Christians. A virus has entered the Aounist movement and it is slowly but surely making its way through the system, closing down the circuits.

Hizbullah is aware of this, which why Nasrallah, in his first post-election speech, suggested that the opposition still represented a numerical majority in Lebanon. The party had relied on Aoun to provide it with a Christian fig leaf for its weapons. Realizing that the general was losing ground among his coreligionists, Nasrallah shifted to a new game board, that of numbers. Even there, however, you could sincerely doubt his math, when there were no elections to speak of in Baalbek-Hermel and much of the South, and when the possibility of emigrants voting makes categorical arguments on majoritarianism dubious.

The premeditated effort to isolate the patriarch seems to be part of a broader scheme by the opposition to offset its mediocre election results. If the Christians are moving away from Aoun, then Bkirki becomes one of the poles around which they gather - the other being the presidency. And just as the opposition went after Michel Sleiman before the elections, they are doing the same with Sfeir today. Their goal is evidently to intimidate the holders of independent Christian power, so that Aoun, who is in urgent need of salvaging, can control more political space.

If that's the plan, it won't work. A declining Aoun is not about to regain popularity through the efforts of the one party, Hizbullah, that most scares Christians, and by assaulting traditional bastions of Christian authority. The Lebanese in general and Christians in particular are, by most accounts, tired of the polarized politics of recent years. On that terrain, Sfeir remains significantly more potent than Michel Aoun, for the patriarch best incarnates the longing for a temperate middle.

1 comment:

BabaGannouj said...

hit the nail on the head with that one.
could not agree more.