Friday, July 31, 2009

Understanding the Wiam Wahhab factor

There is something somewhat reassuring in watching the former Minister Wiam Wahhab meet March 14 or opposition politicians on Syria’s behalf. If he is the best the Syrians have, then this only confirms how weak Damascus has become in Lebanon.

That doesn’t mean that the Assad regime cannot order people killed, plant bombs or obstruct political progress. Its decline in Lebanon remains a relative concept. However, Syria has few means to build a sympathetic order in the country; and even when it did have the means, during its military presence, it was unable to establish enduring institutions of hegemony. Once the Syrian army left Lebanon, the control exercised by Damascus disintegrated into a lower form of intimidation carrying within itself the seeds of its own destruction. The more brutal Syria’s actions, the greater became the momentum in Lebanon to break free from Syria.

Contrast this with Iran. Though the Iranians never sought to control Lebanon before 2005, mainly because their ally Syria was in charge, they did create lasting institutions – the most significant one being Hezbollah. Iran anchored Hezbollah in the Lebanese Shia reality, so that the party’s future became entwined with that of the community, and vice versa.

The Iranians also understood early on the importance of integrating Hezbollah and its supporters into state institutions, in order to shield the party. For example, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei granted Hezbollah permission to participate in the 1992 parliamentary elections. This was the traditional Iranian proclivity for the state talking, in contrast to the behavior of a Syrian regime that has always been about abusing the state and transforming it into the fiefdom and cash cow of the ruling elite.

Take the fate of Sleiman Franjieh, once among Syria’s closest allies. It is no coincidence that he is today embracing the notion of reconciliation with his former Christian adversaries. The reality is that Franjieh, although he narrowly won the elections in Zgharta, has realized the extent to which his power has deteriorated. To his north he is surrounded by predominantly Sunni pro-Hariri districts; and in Batroun, Koura, and Bcharre, those in control are from the March 14 majority, most significantly his main northern rival, Samir Geagea.

For as long as Syria was in Lebanon, Franjieh’s position was protected. But with them gone he has had to face the mood of a society far less inclined to welcome the actions of his allies Syria and Iran. Inter-Christian reconciliation is his only real option to break out of his isolation. As for Franjieh’s recent decision to move to a residence nearer to Beirut, this shows that he grasps the extent to which the political center of gravity has shifted to the capital, well away from Damascus.

Oddly enough, one of Syria’s bitterest enemies between 2005 and 2009 is also facing the reality of what Syria’s growing weakness means. Like Franjieh, Walid Jumblatt was once a prime beneficiary of the Syrian system in Lebanon. His political weight was magnified by the fact that he retained a privileged position in Damascus. He revolted against the Syrians when that position was threatened – following Bashar Assad’s effort to renew the mandate of Emile Lahoud, whom the traditional leaders saw as a Syrian tool to undermine their political authority. Jumblatt won out when the Syrians withdrew, but he also saw that he would now have to fight twice as hard to retain his predominance, because there no longer was someone to safeguard his interests.

Today, Jumblatt is returning to the Syrian fold. However, things are different than before. The Druze leader can afford to move closer to Damascus precisely because he understands that Syrian power has eroded. Other than public words of remorse for what he said about the Syrian regime in recent years, Jumblatt has relatively little to surrender. He can point to the Saudi-Syrian reconciliation to justify his shift, and can also plainly see that because Syria’s army is not in Lebanon, Assad has less of a hold over the country, therefore over Jumblatt himself.

Of course, the Syrians can kill Jumblatt, but at this stage that seems a waste. The Druze leader is of more use alive. They know that he can help Syria restore some of its depleted resources and will work against the Special Tribunal. His death would be deeply destabilizing, would harm Syria’s opening to the United States, and would precipitate a Shia-Druze confrontation that Iran and Hezbollah do not welcome.

Therefore, there are limits even to Syria’s power of the bomb. It’s never a good idea to underestimate Damascus, but it would also be a mistake to assume that it can return to what it had in Lebanon before 2005. Ironically, among those most resistant to a full Syrian restoration is Hezbollah, with Iran behind it. Hezbollah sees no advantages in allowing Bashar Assad to use containment of the Shia party as a strong card in his negotiations with the West. The party will assist Syria, but no more.

That 29 years of Syrian rule should end up with Damascus being represented most forcefully by Wiam Wahhab means something. The mountain has given birth to a mouse. That’s what it means.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Please, a government that speaks to us

The news on Wednesday from Nabih Berri was that we are closer to a new government than anyone thought. If the Parliament speaker’s optimism is justified, that’s good news for Saad Hariri, the prime minister designate, whose imperturbability is beginning to look, dangerously, like lethargy as Lebanon nears the two-month mark after parliamentary elections.

Attention had focused on whether the opposition would continue to demand veto power in the government. Berri’s statements suggested that we may now be beyond that undertaking to turn the March 14 electoral victory into brine. But even if the crisis persists, Hariri must do several things before the government is formed to ensure its success, as well as his own and that of his allies. The June victory has evaporated in the minds of those who favored the majority. Voting against Hizbullah and Michel Aoun was the easy part. What many people are now wondering is what they voted for, and no good answer has been forthcoming.

Hariri must identify clear-cut problems the government intends to address. To promise to fix the economy is meaningless; people want something palpable, something they can measure. Water shortages, electricity outages, gridlocked traffic, high gasoline prices, and a myriad of other problems that the Lebanese have to deal with on a daily basis will soon be Saad Hariri’s problems. He has to show that he is prepared for them, and say so publicly. Begin with the electricity sector, the most blatant mark of state incompetence. Let Hariri promise us that by the next elections Lebanon will have 24 hours of power a day, or something nearing that. Voters on both sides of the divide chose representatives whom they felt might bring in a more effective state. They’re waiting.

Secondly, Hariri has to draw attention to those around him likely to make things better once offered a Cabinet portfolio. In other words he has to associate his future ministers, particularly those from his own Future movement, with strong ideas or programs that the Lebanese will embrace. President Michel Sleiman managed to do that with Ziyad Baroud, a virtual unknown when he was scooped up from the thankless byways of Lebanese civil society activism. Hariri can show that he intends to promote men and women who fit into a governing strategy that he and his team have developed (which means convincing us, first, that he actually has such a strategy). And he should do this now, before finalizing the government, to make it more costly politically for the opposition to hinder his efforts.

A third thing Hariri must do before formally becoming prime minister is to communicate better with the Lebanese. Silence may be defensible when it comes to bargaining over a government, but it makes no sense at all for Hariri to say nothing to those who voted for him – or for that matter against him. What does he stand for? Why should he be prime minister over someone else? What lies ahead? All these questions need to be addressed with much more openness than they have been.

Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has doubtless made several speeches too many for some tastes – speeches that go on forever, without respite. But he has also communicated directly with his followers, explaining what he stands for, therefore what they are entitled to expect from him. Despite Nasrallah’s banishment to a subterranean refuge, he has avoided appearing distant or equivocal, which has strengthened him politically. Hariri would gain by doing the same.

A fourth thing the prime minister designate should do is avoid any sense that his work will revolve around non-Lebanese priorities. March 14 won because many voters, particularly Christian voters, came to the conclusion, exaggerated or not, that Hizbullah and Aoun were serving an Iranian agenda that harmed Lebanon. The worst thing that can happen to Hariri, therefore, is for him to be pegged as the mere extension of a Saudi agenda. It may be tempting to rely on regional transformations, particularly events in Iran, to increase the majority’s leverage. But relying too much on this will backfire. The more vulnerable Hizbullah feels the more inflexibly it will behave, even as the Lebanese will blame Hariri more than they will anyone else for deadlock over the government.

The idea that there is no price to pay for an ongoing vacuum at the head of the state is na├»ve. Hizbullah has already taken advantage of the situation to accelerate its erosion of Resolution 1701 and reduce UNIFIL’s margin of maneuver in southern Lebanon. Hariri is also losing grip over his allies, so that Walid Jumblatt, for instance, can no longer truly be counted as a member of the March 14 coalition. Yet Jumblatt has not strayed off the reservation: He has positioned his political realignment in the context of the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement. Therefore he continues to enjoy Saudi approval and aid, which means there is little Hariri can do about it.

But the most unnecessary price Hariri will pay if he plays the process of government formation wrong is in his popular backing. The elections reinforced Hariri’s power, which he should have used to better define himself to the Lebanese. By failing to do so until now he has lost his post-election momentum, so that voters are unsure about what he represents. Whenever the state is mentioned, cynicism dominates the conversation. That tarnishes Hariri and will handicap him down the road, because his political enemies will use the state’s shortcomings against him.

It benefits no one for Lebanon to continue without a government, or for the person who will lead that government to remain a cipher. Saad Hariri was the big winner on June 7, and the Lebanese want to know more about his project. In this particular case it is silence that is silver and speech gold.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The war begins, against Resolution 1701

As prospects increase for a conflict over Iran’s nuclear program, Hizbullah and Israel are clearing the way for a possible war between themselves by bending Security Council Resolution 1701 out of shape. This makes it all the more important that the next Lebanese government, once it comes around to drafting a ministerial statement, avoid any ambiguities with respect to the resolution and to Hizbullah’s activities in the border area.

For some time now Hizbullah has been working to undercut Resolution 1701. This is part of its wider effort to weaken the edifice of United Nations resolutions governing Lebanese affairs since 2004, starting with Resolution 1559 and including Security Council decisions on the assassination of Rafik Hariri. However, Resolution 1701 is the keystone of the UN system in Lebanon, and it’s not difficult to see why Hizbullah wants to knock it out.

The 2006 war, hailed as a victory by Hizbullah, was a strange victory indeed. It neutralized the party’s military activities in the border area, and it so traumatized the Shiite community that Hizbullah has spent three years thinking of how it might reopen the Israeli front without losing communal support. Cross-border retaliation from Lebanon is one of Iran’s principle deterrents against an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. If Hizbullah fails to fulfill that contract with Tehran, it surrenders one reason for existing. That is why the party has done two things in recent months.

It has started by reinterpreting Resolution 1701 in such a way as to render UNIFIL ineffective. In the past three days, party officials as well as media outlets friendly to Hizbullah have suggested that the UN force exceeded its mandate by inspecting buildings in Khirbet Silm last week, which led to a confrontation with villagers. However, the UN resolution, while it states that UNIFIL must “[a]ssist the Lebanese armed forces” in its activities, also goes quite a ways in clarifying the force’s mandate in its Paragraph 12.

The paragraph “authorizes UNIFIL to take all necessary action in areas of deployment of its forces and as it deems within its capabilities, to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind, to resist attempts by forceful means to prevent it from discharging its duties under the mandate of the Security Council and to protect United Nations personnel, facilities, installations and equipment, ensure the security and freedom of movement of United Nations personnel, humanitarian workers, and, without prejudice to the responsibility of the government of Lebanon, to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.”

Hizbullah, in contrast, has stuck to a much narrower interpretation of the resolution, suggesting that UNIFIL’s role is basically to support the Lebanese Army, which must take the lead in most actions. This is not sustained by a reading of the text of Resolution 1701, but that’s missing the point. Hizbullah’s primary aim is to bolster the legitimacy of its interpretation among its Shiite supporters in the south, in order to be able to mobilize the community against UNIFIL when required. The situation on the ground, much more than textual legalisms, will constrain the UN force, which cannot hope to function effectively in a hostile environment.

However, Hizbullah’s actions also serve a more significant purpose: to generate a feeling in the south that an Israeli attack is imminent, and that UNIFIL is preventing Lebanon from properly defending itself. If Israel were to attack Iran, Hizbullah would not be able to persuade its followers of its duty to retaliate on Tehran’s behalf. No Lebanese wants to become cannon fodder for the Iranians. On the other hand, if Hizbullah’s partisans were persuaded that Israel was the one itching for war, then the party could better justify to the Shiite community firing rockets across the border.

This was the intention of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on Monday, but his long-term objectives were made even clearer in a speech the Hizbullah secretary general made last May 15, when he declared: “We look forward to a state able to defend itself, its own decisions, its land, its people, and its security, without needing [UN] forces – which, with all due respect as they are our guests in the south, neither make things better or worse – and without needing foreign security apparatuses; we Lebanese have the capabilities allowing Lebanon to have a creditable force on that basis.”

The Israelis are no less keen to undermine Resolution 1701, in order to widen their margin of reprisal against Hizbullah in the aftermath of an attack, Israeli or American, on Iran. Their call this week for UNIFIL’s terms of engagement to be altered was disingenuous. Israel has systematically violated Resolution 1701 through its overflights, and still occupies the Lebanese half of Ghajar. The Israelis, too, are setting up a straw man in the south – to depict themselves as innocent if any conflict breaks out along the border.

There is also the matter of brutality. The next war between Lebanon and Israel, if it occurs, will bring about much more violent an Israeli reaction than ever before. The Israelis will bomb Lebanon’s infrastructure, cities, and a variety of other economic targets. To eventually validate such an apocalypse over the protests of the international community, the Netanyahu government today is trying to show that it is committed to robust implementation of Resolution 1701, therefore to international law.

Lebanon remains a confrontation state. It’s doubtful, however, that most Lebanese welcome this fact. Much will be determined by how the government frames the situation in south Lebanon in its ministerial statement. The likely outcome will be an unsatisfactory compromise, a statement satisfying both Hizbullah’s desire to pursue the armed resistance and the majority’s support for Resolution 1701. That’s bad news. Unless March 14 takes a strong stance guaranteeing the continued neutralization of the border area, it will be partly responsible for any conflict in the future.

Lebanon is caught up in calculations that largely involve a country, Iran, thousands of kilometers away. We know the carnage that Israel can wreak. Lebanon has no business getting caught up in hostilities between Israel and Iran, and Hizbullah has no business dragging us into one. And the Hariri government, if it ever sees the day, has no business creating an opening for those pining to turn Lebanon into a battle zone again.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Calculating Syria: The Less It Has, The More It Wants

A friend once pithily summed up the Syrian strategy in Lebanon, and elsewhere, with this phrase from the 18th-century orator Mirabeau describing Talleyrand, the great French statesman: “Talleyrand would sell his soul to the devil. He would be right in doing so, for he would exchange manure for gold.”

In many respects that is what the Syrian president Bashar Assad has been trying to do since the Lebanese parliamentary elections last month. These not only brought victory for Syria’s adversaries, the March 14 coalition, but also weakened Syria’s allies in the opposition, to the advantage of Iran’s allies. Despite so patently weak a hand, the Syrians have doubled their demands, hoping to re-impose a measure of the political dominance they enjoyed before their forced military withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005.

Their primary conduit for doing so is the new Lebanese government currently being formed by Saad Hariri. The Syrians had hoped to use their rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, Mr Hariri’s sponsor, to become godfather to a new government arrangement between March 14 and the Hizbollah-led opposition, along the lines of the Doha accord of May 2008. To facilitate such a deal they also hoped to bring Mr Hariri to Damascus before the prime minister-designate formed his cabinet. While both efforts appear to have collapsed, they reveal Mr Assad’s true intentions.

He is keen to receive Mr Hariri in Damascus, feeling this would symbolically exonerate Syria for its role in the assassination of his father, Rafiq Hariri. While there seems little doubt that Syria was behind the killing, the Middle East can be a hard place. Saad Hariri always knew that becoming prime minister would entail dealing with Syria. The Saudis are keen that he do so. But he is said to have refused to go to Damascus before the new government is finalised. The United States and Egypt are equally committed to this condition, which appears to have persuaded the Saudis to backtrack. An immediate consequence was the postponement of a Syrian-Saudi summit scheduled for last Monday.

More generally, however, Mr Assad is in urgent need of a success in Lebanon. Syria’s ability to block progress has always been great, but the president’s ability to impose his will has diminished. Syria can destroy in Lebanon, but not build. Pro-Syrian members of the new parliament are there only thanks to Hizbollah’s voters. Most Lebanese, including the Shiite community, have no desire to go back to the days of Syrian domination. There is a consensus in the Middle East and the West that Syria’s days of calling the shots in Beirut are over. Faced with this reality, Mr Assad has been trying hard to recoup his Lebanese cards, so he can have something to bargain with when (or if) he resumes negotiations with Israel, and when Washington and the Arab states have decided to re-engage Syria.

The Syrians are hoping to get one point across to their Arab brethren and to the Americans: if another power is to have a commanding presence in Lebanon, better Syria than Iran. For the moment, that sort of blackmail is not working. Few see Lebanon’s fate in such stark “either-or” terms. Making matters worse for Mr Assad is that the March 14 victory showed how the Lebanese were perfectly capable on their own of saying no to Iran (the vote was very much a rejection of Hizbollah and its allies) without any perceptible parallel desire to embrace Syria.

Mr Assad has been dancing a complex pas de deux in recent years. In 2005 he substantially improved his relationship with Iran on the assumption that this would enhance Syria’s regional role. The move was shrewd, all the more so in bringing petitioners to Damascus asking that Mr Assad break with Tehran, thereby enhancing his bargaining power. Last January the Syrians scored a major diplomatic victory when King Abdullah reversed Saudi Arabia’s policy of isolating Syria and called for renewed Arab unity. This led to a reconciliation of sorts between Saudi Arabia and Syria, and more recently the Obama administration followed by deciding to return a US ambassador to Damascus after a four-year hiatus following the Hariri assassination.

However, the implicit quid pro quo is that Syria take steps to distance itself from Iran and play a less negative role both in Lebanon, and on the Palestinian front through its support for Hamas. That hope is counterintuitive. Mr Assad won’t easily surrender political relationships that allow Syria to avoid regional irrelevance. That’s why we should expect Syria to continue trying to reassert its power in Lebanon (which requires that it stay close to Hizbollah and Iran) by leveraging its ability to affect the make-up of the government, and why Syria has reportedly urged Hamas to harden its stance in the negotiations in Cairo over a Palestinian unity government. This has angered the Egyptians, and is one reason why they blocked a Hariri visit to Damascus before an agreement on a new government

Even when the Syrians have nothing, they demand everything. And oddly, they’ve often succeeded. But times are changing. Not the Lebanese, nor the Arab world, nor the international community are willing to hand Lebanon back to Mr Assad. As for the Palestinians, Syrian intransigence will alienate not only Egypt, but also Saudi Arabia and the United States, who are all working for a breakthrough on the Palestinian-Israeli track, allowing Israel to indefinitely delay negotiations over the Golan Heights.

Reversing Mirabeau’s statement may be useful in this context. Unable to win gold because of his country’s patent weaknesses and his compensatory urge to spread instability, Mr Assad may ultimately find himself holding a substance far less pleasant.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Why the revival of the Der Spiegel theory?

There has been a story circulating around Beirut lately that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will soon be issuing indictments in the February 14, 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri and those accompanying him, and that these will closely replicate the conclusions published by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel last May.

As you might recall, the article, written by one Erich Follath, made the claim that “it was not the Syrians, but instead special forces of [Hezbollah] that planned and executed the diabolical attack.” Follath also affirmed that Syria “is not being declared free of the suspicion of involvement,” but that “President Bashar Assad is no longer in the line of fire.”

That the Hariri tribunal will be issuing indictments soon is good news, but nothing yet indicates this is in any way true. Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare, by the tribunal’s own admission, will be spending several weeks in Canada, during which time he will undergo medical treatment. His health problems may be minor, we hope so, but somehow it seems unlikely that a prosecutor on the verge of issuing high-profile accusations will do so right after spending that long a period away from his office.

There are several more serious problems with the hypothesis about the indictments approximating the Der Spiegel article – a hypothesis repeated again this week by the respected An-Nahar commentator Sarkis Naoum. The first is that Der Spiegel itself was vague about the nature of Hezbollah’s involvement. In a complex conspiracy like the Hariri assassination, there are several circles of perpetrators, something United Nations investigators recognized in their reports. Follath claimed that analyses of telephone intercepts by Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces had proven that Hezbollah members were in on the Hariri operation. Yet nowhere did he elucidate precisely the role they allegedly played. For example, they may have been observing Hariri’s motorcade but were not in on the actual killing, which was apparently carried out by a suicide bomber. Only by being specific on so essential a detail can Follath legitimately assert that Hezbollah planned and executed the attack.

A second problem is that nowhere did Follath substantiate that Syria was not involved in Hariri’s murder, which meant he could not make a compelling case that Bashar Assad was “not in the line of fire.” The reality is that if Syrian involvement is proven, then no decision along such lines would have been taken without Assad’s approval. And if Follath was unable to demonstrate Syrian innocence, why should we expect the Special Tribunal to do so, when all the information indicates that UN investigators never abandoned their belief that Syria was involved?

In fact, just before leaving office, the first commissioner of the UN investigative commission, Detlev Mehlis, was preparing to arrest Syrian officials, a decision he left to his successor, Serge Brammertz, because of time constraints. If Brammertz disagreed with Mehlis, he never expressed it in any of his reports. All of them tended to validate what Mehlis had written, even if Brammertz’s methods were tamer. In fact they were so tame that not a few people, including several officials who dealt with the Belgian, believe he advanced relatively little during his years in office.

A third problem is that the Special Tribunal is not only investigating Hariri’s assassination, but also the dozens of bomb attacks and assassinations that followed between 2005 and 2008. The Der Spiegel article never addressed these crimes, therefore any thorough indictment must necessarily move well beyond what Follath wrote. When UN investigators from the outset have been mainly working on a Syrian angle to the crime, and this can be confirmed from numerous sources, it seems risky in the extreme to maintain that everything has been telescoped into a narrow focus on Hezbollah. Nor do recent UN reports imply this.

This allows us to ask, then, why the sudden return to the Der Spiegel conclusions? It’s difficult to say. However, the leak to the German magazine was not a coincidence, and it was, plainly, done to undermine the UN investigation. The most frightful message in the article was that the truth about who killed Rafik Hariri might lead to a Sunni-Shia civil war. That was the gist of what Bashar Assad told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a meeting they held in Damascus in April 2007. Are those leaking to the media that the Special Tribunal’s indictments will inculpate Hezbollah trying to issue the same warning? If so, then someone is again placing the Hariri trial in the crosshairs.

In the absence of something official from the Special Tribunal, it’s best to remain skeptical when it comes to whatever is said about the Hariri case. However, the tribunal’s continued delay in issuing indictments only provides more room to those seeking to close the institution down once and for all. Not surprisingly, the scent of blood is in the air.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Jumblatt, or the burden of reinvention

When Walid Jumblatt visited Hassan Nasrallah recently in a catacomb of Beirut’s southern suburbs, he took with him two books, Tariq Ali’s “The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power” and Ahmed Rashid’s “Descent into Chaos,” about America’s failure at nation-building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.

Jumblatt’s message could be read in several ways. To fortify his improved relations with Hizbullah, he might have been telling Nasrallah that both had a common enemy in Sunni extremism, particularly that coming from South and Central Asia. Or he could have been warning that if Hizbullah ever went too far, the extremist counter-reaction would sweep everyone away. Whatever the Druze leader was trying to say, it was symptomatic of the ambiguities he is navigating through today.

Jumblatt’s realignment toward Syria has been the source of much speculation, and irritation, among supporters of the March 14 coalition. In some respects this is justified. Jumblatt is like a pendulum: When he swings in one direction, he tends to go all the way before he can start swinging back again. His reconciliation with Hizbullah and the Shiite community, understandable in itself, somehow had to be accompanied by the less understandable criticism of his Christian allies in the majority and his denigration of the “Lebanon first” slogan of Saad Hariri, so that in his interview last week with the pro-opposition daily Al-Akhbar, he declared that “Lebanon first” meant “the encirclement of Syria.”

Some believe that Jumblatt wagered on an opposition victory during the June 7 elections. It was probably more subtle than that. Jumblatt hoped to hold, with Nabih Berri, the balance in a new Parliament, through a “centrist” bloc friendly to Syria in which he would have played a leading role. In this way, Jumblatt could have situated himself at the nexus point of several relationships – that between March 14 and the opposition, between Hizbullah and Syria, between Syria and Iran, between the Saudis and the Syrians, between President Michel Sleiman and Michel Aoun, and certainly more – in order to continue playing a vanguard political role, thereby staying ahead of the curve and remaining relevant.

Jumblatt has been at the center of the political stage for so long that it’s difficult to grasp how intense has been his struggle against irrelevance. By any normal benchmark, Lebanon’s Druze would be an afterthought were it not for Jumblatt’s political gymnastics during the past three decades. It has often been said, quite correctly, that to understand the Druze lea­der’s behavior, we should memorize a simple theorem: Jumblatt’s actions are defined by two purposes, defense of the Druze and defense of Jumblatti control over the Druze. However, implicit in both clauses is that Jumblatt must labor constantly to persuade everyone that he and his community are major pla­yers, when everything suggests otherwise.

The elections were a setback for Jumblatt. His banking on a balancing role in Parliament was dashed when Hizbullah voted massively in favor of Aoun, in the process denying Berri, Jumblatt’s partner, any independent Shiite role. One of the subtexts in the voting was that Syria proved unable to gain ground with respect to its Iranian ally, so that the project of a “centrist bloc” closer to Damascus, as a counterweight to Hizbullah’s “pro-Iranian bloc,” went nowhere. Personally, Jumblatt also saw the size of his bloc shrink. He lost Ayman Shouqair in Baabda after having ceded seats to his Christian partners in both Aley and the Chouf, which is what has principally fed his rancor against them.

Jumblatt has spent more than a year preparing his realignment. For some time he sensed that the pillars of his post-2005 strategy were collapsing. The door to a settlement with Syria, which Jumblatt probably would have welcomed as early as late 2005, was closed early on. So the Druze leader came to depend on a combination of American support for March 14 during the Bush years, the rivalry bet­ween Saudi Arabia and Syria, the international probe of Rafik Hariri’s assassination, and the belief Hizbullah would not act militarily against its fellow Lebanese.

In May 2008 Hizbullah did precisely that, attacking Jumblatt in Aley and the Chouf. Washington stood by, unable to do anything. Meanwhile, the Hariri investigation remained in the doldrums and the release of the four generals in April persuaded Jumblatt that no leverage could be sought there anymore. Barack Obama’s decision to engage Syria, like the Saudi reconciliation with the Assad regime, left the Druze leader with no regional or international crutch to lean on against the Syrians. So Jumblatt decided he would reinvent himself as someone friendly to Damascus, hence his electoral calculations. When Hizbullah dented his ambition, the Druze leader had no choice but to stay the course.

Jumblatt began by declaring his opposition to any privatization plans for the new government, his tried and tested bargaining method with a prime minister to preserve his own share of the state patronage pie, the essence of political power in Lebanon. He then became more active on the Syrian front. Having failed to play the parliamentary balance, he could at least make it appear like he was the one lighting Saad Hariri’s path to Damascus. This he did by taking a series of steps to show the Syrians that he was back in their fold, of which mocking the “Lebanon first” slogan was but one example. He met this week with the Syrians’ Druze creation Wi’am Wahhab, after receiving in early July a delegation from Ahmad Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which is really little more than a branch of Syria’s intelligence service.

This vanguard role has come with a price. Jumblatt is more isolated than ever from his March 14 allies, and he is increasingly distrusted by the Sunni community, which means that when he ascends to Damascus he will do so with few cards in hand to preserve his political maneuverability, and very much respectability. The Druze will doubtless follow him, but in their majority they are convinced neither by the rapprochement with Hizbullah nor the turnaround on Syria – particularly four years after Jumblatt declared that his antagonism toward its regime made him comfortable with respect to the memory of his father, whom the Syrians murdered.

Jumblatt’s shifts over the years have been dizzying, but his rationale has usually been sound. A Sunni-Shiite war would indeed sweep the Druze away, which is why he believes the community must be on good terms with both sides. Jumblatt can’t stand alone against Syria, hence his looming visit to Damascus, or Canossa. But once all is said and done, we should accept that Walid Jumblatt remains a man at the shadow’s edge, his acrobatics an effort to avoid being swallowed up by the darkness. If that were to happen, he realizes better than most, no one would ask twice about him or his community.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Murderers' Makeover

In the annals of Western cretinism on Syria, I reserve a special place for one Olivia Sterns. The country has gotten a bad rap, she wrote in an article last May, and President Obama should recognize it has a softer side. "One look at the country's first lady Asma al-Assad should help prove so to disbelievers. The British-born, jeans-wearing wife of the current President Bashar represents a radically more modern regime."

But what about the killing of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, certainly the work of Syria's radically more modern regime? This was not the doing of "President Bashar," Sterns implied in a passage soggy with obfuscation: "Presently, the dark days of the reign of Bashar's father, President Hafez al-Assad, appear long gone. A United Nations tribunal of [sic] the 2005 assassination of … Hariri is now underway. That investigation should go a long way to exposing the remaining loyalist elements and corruption in the current regime."

Had Sterns been less besotted with the Assads, she might have learned something about the system they preside over. Those who have done so know the president could not possibly have avoided being involved in Hariri's elimination, even if his men implicated others to spread the blame and impose silence. The Assad regime is a centralized, hierarchical, family-led affair. It allows no room but for those at the very top to take so perilous a decision as removing someone of Hariri's stature. None but Assad's authority could have mobilized the vast resources used in the Hariri conspiracy--or triggered the (botched) cover-up afterward.

However, Sterns was right in one regard: Bashar Assad is becoming respectable again, and it's not just because his wife wears jeans. Several factors are contributing to make the Syrian leader palatable.

The first is that the United Nations-led investigation of the Hariri murder appears to be going nowhere. After four years, not a single suspect remains in custody and the investigation process, now transformed into a trial process being held in a suburb of The Hague, has yet to come out with formal indictments. We may have something within the next six months, but don't hold your breath.

That wasn't always the case. There were palpable signs of progress during the early months of the U.N. investigation in late 2005, when it was headed by the German judge Detlev Mehlis. In his first report (and in my own subsequent conversations with him), Mehlis had no doubt that Syria was behind Hariri's killing. I would later learn, though not from Mehlis himself, that he was preparing to arrest Syrian intelligence officers. However, because of time constraints before his departure from Lebanon, Mehlis had left that step to his Belgian successor, Serge Brammertz.

In January 2008 I flew to Berlin to interview Mehlis, his first major statement on the Hariri case since returning home. Brammertz had ended his term without arresting anyone, despite Mehlis' intentions, and the German felt he could legitimately express doubts about his successor's work. "I haven't seen a word in his reports during the past two years confirming that he has moved forward," Mehlis told me.

This was a devastating indictment, one I confirmed through several other sources. I would later hear that Brammertz had told Lebanese colleagues that he had not added much to his file, but expected that within a year the investigation would be concluded. The Lebanese were confused. If there was not much new, how could the Belgian set so precise a deadline?

It has been 18 months since Brammertz's departure, and still no accusations have come down. His successor, Daniel Bellemare, continues his inquiry as prosecutor of the Hariri tribunal, which began operating last March. He may find something, but it's hard to believe that the years of relative idleness under Brammertz have not exacted a serious toll. The Belgian needed to conduct a police investigation when he arrived in Beirut, but instead he reportedly replaced many of his investigators with analysts. Bellemare reversed course, but with so little visibly in hand, it's politics that may ultimately determine the trial's success or failure.

The regional and international political situation has changed since 2005. Officially, everyone supports the Hariri tribunal, but it is a low priority. Syria's Arab adversaries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have mended their ties with Damascus of late, largely to bolster Arab unity against a resurgent Iran. Europe and the U.S. are also in the midst of engaging Assad's regime, and Barack Obama even made this one of his Mideastern priorities. Recently, the U.S. decided to resend an ambassador to Syria, the previous one having been withdrawn after Hariri's assassination. Petitioners are lining up urging Syria to play ball on Iran or Arab-Israeli peace. Nobody wants the Hariri tribunal to ruin things. International tribunals, like most international institutions, easily atrophy when governments allow them to die.

Even in Lebanon, the situation is different. Saad Hariri, Rafiq's son, is prime minister-designate following elections in June. He will doubtless visit Syria after forming a government. His Saudi sponsors are pushing him in that direction, but they don't need to: No Lebanese head of government can readily bypass the Syrians. Understanding these dynamics, other Lebanese opponents of Syria are also preparing to take the road to Damascus, or Canossa. Most prominent among these is the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who once called Assad a "monkey".

Detlev Mehlis told me that upon taking over the Hariri investigation, he met with then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. He "made it clear to me that he did not want another trouble spot," the German recalled. The truth about who killed Rafiq Hariri is indeed troublesome to many states. Don't be surprised, then, if Syria's leaders get away with murder.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Hariri tribunal: A case that time forgot

Those with a long memory may remember the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which sits in a suburb of The Hague and hopefully, before we all turn to stone, will issue an indictment in the assassination of the late Rafik Hariri. An email from the tribunal was sent out on Wednesday, one of several distributed by the spokesperson’s office in recent weeks.

The email informed us that the Special Tribunal “announces that during his leave in Canada, Prosecutor Daniel A. Bellemare will receive some medical treatment for a few weeks. Although away from the office, he will not be away from the issues… The investigation is progressing and the Prosecutor intends to ensure that the pace of the investigation is not only maintained, but is also increased during his absence.”

We can only wish Bellemare well, whatever ailment he has. However, it is perhaps fitting that he should be seeking medical attention, since his investigation has fallen into a deep coma.

The real question today is whether, given domestic and regional developments affecting Lebanon, the critical mass to ensure that the tribunal is a success has not altogether been lost. In recent months, the prosecutor’s case has suffered two blows – the release of the four generals and the Der Spiegel article on Hezbollah’s alleged participation in the Hariri assassination, which tainted one aspect of the investigation that seemed to have actually progressed in the past four years: analyses of telephone intercepts conducted by Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces.

However, it’s the politics that we should be watching. As much as many of us would like to believe that an international judicial investigation and trial is free from politicization, this conviction is, quite frankly, nonsense. Recall what the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, told Detlev Mehlis, the first head of the commission investigating Hariri’s killing. As Mehlis recalled in a Wall Street Journal interview I conducted with him: “Annan made it clear to me that he did not want another trouble spot. I respected this but he also respected my point of view. Traditionally, there is tension between politics and justice, and I accepted that Annan did not want more problems because of the Hariri case.”

At the start, the Hariri investigation and tribunal were the fruit of concentric circles of consensus. In 2005, the international community, through the Security Council, reached agreement over a UN-led inquiry, and it was able to do so because the situation in Lebanon had changed thanks to the success of the Independence Intifada. The international and the local situations fed off one another, putting Syria on the defensive. On the eve of his departure, Mehlis was preparing to arrest Syrian officials, but the short time he had left mandated that the decision be implemented by his successor, Serge Brammertz.

Brammertz did nothing. He, too, probably heard from Annan that the UN did not want another trouble spot, but this time, I suspect, the commissioner listened. For two years there was little discernible progress in his work, as he reportedly replaced a large number of investigators with analysts. Brammertz unnecessarily reopened the crime scene, only to reach the same conclusions as Mehlis. This was all enough to blunt the momentum of the Hariri investigation. By late 2007, France, initially one of the twin pillars, with the United States, of support for Resolution 1559 and the UN investigation, was looking to normalize relations with Syria. The Obama administration also promised engagement with Syria when it took office in 2009, and just two weeks ago Washington announced that it would return its ambassador to Damascus.

There was a moment between 2006 and early 2009 when Saudi Arabian and Egyptian hostility to Syria suggested that the tribunal might even retain the interest of major Arab states. However, King Abdullah’s “reconciliation” with Bashar al-Assad at the economic summit in Kuwait last January confirmed how the Arabs, never enthusiastic about the Hariri investigation in the first place, were looking beyond taking Damascus to court. Reasons of state dictated that efforts be made to draw Assad away from Iran – and anyway, why would the Arabs take a principled position on Syrian killing when they had never done so in the past, and when most Security Council members had already lowered the heat on Syria?

Now the domestic side of support for the tribunal has all but disintegrated. Saad Hariri, the prime minister designate, remains publicly confident about the trial’s outcome, but he probably knows that justice will fall between the cracks of regional priorities. He’s a realist, and may ultimately accept what the tribunal offers, which until now is nothing at all. Hariri also has little Lebanese support at this stage to rely upon. Walid Jumblatt appears to have given up on the tribunal, officially fearing it might bring about a Sunni-Shia conflict, but really because his priority today is to reconcile with Syria. Hariri’s Christian allies back him up, but ultimately they don’t count for very much. As for Hezbollah, and to a lesser extent the Aounists, long ago they signaled how unenthusiastic they were about seeing genuine progress in the Hariri affair.

Only movement from Bellemare, superhuman movement, might have a chance of kicking some life into the trial machine. But that’s not going to happen. The prosecutor doesn’t have a suspect in hand; his case, whatever his statements to the contrary, is in worrisome limbo after four years of investigation; and one must really wonder if he and his team have the competence to try a complex political murder of this nature. Nothing, absolutely nothing, encourages us today to be confident of the outcome.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Should we worry about Sami Gemayel?

It’s the kind of person that Amine Gemayel is that he had two sons, one who channeled his father, the other channeling his brother. In other words, one son, the regretted Pierre, sensitive to the rules of coexistence with Muslims, as was his namesake Pierre Gemayel; and the other son, Sami, who seems impatient with those rules, like his uncle Bashir, his priority above all being the Christians, their unity and power, who has allocated only an anteroom for Muslims in his impetuous reflections.

Sami Gemayel often appears to prefer his Christian adversaries to his non-Christian allies. No sooner had he won a seat in the Metn, than he congratulated the Armenian supporters of the Tashnag Party for their exemplary unity – a unity all Christians would do well to learn from, he added. Last week, Gemayel drove north to meet with Sleiman Franjieh, the Marada leader, another step in bringing the Christians, and the Maronites in particular, closer together. All this, it seems, is a way of ensuring that “no one steps on the Christians anymore,” as Gemayel fervently declared in a hometown rally after his election victory.

I admit to having voted for Gemayel, but without conviction, primarily to guarantee that Michel Aoun’s candidates would lose. However, the joke was on us. In essence Gemayel is little different than Aoun and his followers. All embody the return to a rural Maronite insularism very different than the composite ideology that made modern Lebanon – an ideology of the mountain and of the city, to paraphrase the late historian Albert Hourani. As Hourani explained, modern Lebanon is the fruit of tough, independent rural insularism, mainly associated with the mountain communities, softened by the openness of the urban communities. These characteristics have endured, so that even during the civil war this valuable amalgam was never really threatened.

Much has changed. An alarming number of Maronites today appear to have lost any sense of the collective nature of the Lebanese state. The Aounists, Sami Gemayel, Nadim Gemayel, even Sleiman Franjieh, have shown an inability to come to grips with the sectarian contract of 1943, the National Pact, and its successor, the Taif Accord. Taif is the real culprit to them, documentary proof of Christian decline – a decline they have all received with bitterness, even if their responses have differed.

For the Aounists, Taif handed Maronite power to the Sunnis, hence their effort to reverse this by allying themselves with another rural community, the Shiites, to regain what was lost. For people like Sami Gemayel, the solution lies in greater Christian unanimity against the outside, which when you peel away the layers is really just a strategy bound to enhance Christian isolation. For Franjieh and not a few Aounists, the way out is through an alliance of minorities, with the Alawites in Syria and the Shiites in Lebanon, against the Sunni majority in the Middle East. Each of these notions is foolish in itself, an avenue toward communal suicide, and all have one thing in common: antagonism toward the Sunni community.

There is no small amount of historical irony, and hypocrisy, here. For decades the Maronites took pride in saying that they were the true defenders of “Lebanon first.” Now that the Sunnis have adopted the slogan as their own, too many Maronites have reacted as if this were a threat to the Lebanese entity because Sunnis are extensions of an Arab majority. Ultimately, the message this sends is that the Maronites only defended a “Lebanon first” option when the Lebanon in question was one they dominated. Now that the community feels it is losing ground, the preference is for Christians to envelope themselves in a tight defensive shell.

When Sami Gemayel speaks about the Christians “being stepped upon,” what does he mean? This is the language of demagoguery, and in some respects of war. Who has stepped on the Christians? Judging by Gemayel’s actions and statements, the simple answer is “the Muslims” whoever that may be. Yet being stepped upon is a very different concept than accepting the reality of Christian numerical regression. It is very different than grasping that Taif, the hated Taif, hands Christians representation well beyond their real numbers. When one feels stepped upon, the world looks like the bottom of a shoe, and it becomes very difficult to follow a sensible path away from one’s resentments.

Sami Gemayel may seem easy to dismiss, but one should be careful. He is a true believer and has adopted the mindset of Bashir Gemayel, which may bring on powerful approval if Christian frustrations rise further. There are differences: Bashir saw the finality of his actions in the context of the Lebanese state; Sami is alienated from the state. However, both see strength in unity, a concept that some of us regard with trepidation. Unity can be shorthand for imposed uniformity, and such an aspiration sidesteps that the wealth of the Christians lies in their pluralism. True believers are infused with hubris; they dislike variety, dissent, and feel they have a superior sense of what is best for their followers. They are also hardnosed about things, believing that their higher goals justify difficult compromises. That is why Sami Gemayel was able to meet with Sleiman Franjieh, the ally of his own brother’s assassins.

Where are the Muslims in all this? The only antidote against Christian irrelevance is to develop a new relationship with Muslims, all Muslims, to define together a more consensual Lebanese polity. For that to happen, Christians must indeed unite around a common reading of their role in Lebanon, one that is positive, that advocates neither isolation nor perennial aversion toward their non-Christian partners. Such negative reflexes may seem to be a consequence of Christian reaffirmation; in fact, they only confirm Christian marginalization. Resentment, bitterness, isolation, hostility, communal self-absorption are qualities of a community mired in mediocrity, with no sense of the constructive long-term impact it might have on its environment.

It would be unfair to blame all this on a young Sami Gemayel. But in many ways he seems far more credible an embodiment of the Christians’ future than the opportunistic politicians around Michel Aoun. He believes and the Christians want to believe, which is why we should watch him closely.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Elmaleh's case echoes our liberal limits

Much indignation has been voiced in recent days against the actions of the Al-Manar website and television station that pushed the French actor and comedian, Gad Elmaleh, to cancel his performance at the Beiteddine Festival. That this is a free-speech concern is undeniable; however we should not underestimate the political messages also being sent.

Al-Manar accused Elmaleh, a French Jew of Moroccan origin, of having served in the Israeli army, and of otherwise advancing Israel's interests. This prompted a campaign of threats on the internet, as well as calls to boycott the comedian's stand-up show scheduled for July 13-15. Evidence for the accusations was scant and in some cases doctored, while Elmaleh's manager denied that he had anything to do with Israel.

How this reminds us of another craven campaign from several years ago, when Lebanon was still a Syrian protectorate. Back then, implicit threats were passed through a daily newspaper, probably by Syria's intelligence services, to prevent three Arab Jews from traveling to Beirut. Oddly, all were harsh critics of Israel, among them the Lebanese writer Selim Nassib and the Moroccan dissident Abraham Serfaty. Evidently, there are "acceptable" prominent foreign Jews, like Norman Finkelstein and Seymour Hersh, and there are Jews who, for obscure reasons, just don't make the cut.

Much of the reaction to Al-Manar's campaign centered on what it meant for freedom of speech and how Elmaleh's cancellation marred Lebanon's reputation. What Hizbullah's campaign tells us is that if prominent visitors happen to be Jewish, the party has appropriated the right to filter whether they enter Lebanon or not. Why should Hizbullah hesitate when its secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, declared in a September 1992 interview, that "for the resistance to survive there should be a community that adopts it and adopts the resistance fighter. This means that, in order to remain steadfast, that fighter needs to secure all the support he needs politically, security-wise, culturally and economically ..."

Put Elmaleh down as the latest victim of the resistance fighter's right to enjoy cultural sustenance. However, let's bear in mind a key difference that distinguishes the Elmaleh case (like those of Nassib and Serfaty) from other examples of cultural prohibition common to the Arab world, which can be eminently condemnable in their own right: it is underpinned by a forewarning of violence. Hizbullah has effectively granted permission for someone to take a potshot at the enemy if he dares enter our midst.

The logic is little different than Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie, albeit presented in a more devious way: We, the party or the cleric, issue a general justification for killing or harming an individual, and it is up to the faithful, whoever they might be, to implement it. That is very likely why Elmaleh cancelled his trip. Even if Hizbullah was never likely to do anything against the performer, who could guarantee that a zealot, feeling he or she had gained the party's approval, would not?

Politics has also played a role in the Elmaleh affair. In so many words Hizbullah has accused Walid Jumblatt, through the festival organized by his wife, Nora, of wanting to bring an Israeli soldier to Lebanon. On one cheek Jumblatt receives Nasrallah's kisses of reconciliation, on the other he must prepare for his slaps. Hizbullah knows that the Druze leader needs better relations with the Shiites, and so it apparently intends to make him pay a high price for this. It will not soon forget what Jumblatt said about the party during these past three years, and has even accused people around him of collaborating with Israel during the 2006 war. There is not much that Jumblatt can do about it, and his recent positions against privatization and Saad Hariri's "Lebanon first" slogan were surely, in part, efforts to curry favor with Hizbullah.

No less political was the press conference on Tuesday organized by Nora Jumblatt, the tourism minister, Elie Marouni, the culture minister, Tammam Salam, and the information minister, Tarek Mitri. Marouni declared, "[T]he principal enemy of tourism [in Lebanon] is Israel. Every strike against tourism is a gift to Israel." That a Phalangist minister should have sounded something like a Baathist clerk was unfortunate, but the point was unambiguous: Hizbullah, not those who invited Gad Elmaleh to Beirut, was the one serving Israel's interests. Forgetting about politics for a moment, the Elmaleh incident tells us a great deal about the kind of Lebanon that emerged from the 2005 independence intifada against Syria. Four years on there is still no clear agreement, let alone a debate, over what kind of state Lebanon should become. The liberal spaces in the country are many, but those who want to close these down are becoming more aggressive. Hizbullah is a prime culprit, but the party can only thrive in an environment where there is no consensus over what constitutes a red line in curbing our freedoms. Liberal outrage with what happened to Gad Elmaleh has been heartening, but how deep has this been felt among the mass of Lebanese?

The real battle since 2005 has been between Lebanon's liberal and illiberal tendencies, beyond the March 14-opposition dichotomy. We can lament Elmaleh's decision not to come to Beiteddine, but what we really must regret is that we live in a society where threats still have an impact, because no one trusts Lebanon's state and society to make those threats costly. Hizbullah has won this round, and now feels it can win many more.

Elmaleh’s case and Iran tell us much about Hezbollah

What do the recent protests in Iran have in common with the decision of the French actor and comedian Gad Elmaleh not to attend the Beiteddine Festival next week? Simply that both events exposed once again the extent to which illiberal tendencies are an inherent part of Hezbollah’s identity.

Party leaders were relatively quiet in the early days of the Iranian demonstrations, although they defended the alleged election victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Hezbollah sided with the hardliners in Tehran who had likely swindled millions of Iranians out of a vote. This was natural, since the party is an emanation of generally the most intransigent and undemocratic bastions of Iranian power. But the reaction also showed how Hezbollah, because of its instincts of self-preservation, has a natural interest in seeing Iran’s reformers and democrats fail, even those who have no desire to overthrow the regime.

How odd this is for a party that, both inside Lebanon and throughout the Middle East, has laid claim to moral righteousness, through its efforts to combat an unjust Israel and an overbearing United States. By the same token, Hezbollah has often argued that it is the preeminent defender of Shia rights in Lebanon, and that if the country’s political system were more just, the Shia would be afforded greater political power. In electoral terms, for instance, party leaders routinely call for a voting system that favors what they believe is the community’s numerical majority.

That’s why it’s so instructive to see a party that supposedly embodies social justice, majority voting, and moral rectitude, supporting the ruthless crushing in Iran of a legitimate challenge to a falsified election that ignored the views of a majority of voters. And if you doubt that there was cheating, then explain the incomprehensible behavior of the very people and institutions in Iran that Hezbollah most strongly supports, who rejected a more consensual solution to the election dispute.

Then there is the case of Gad Elmaleh. The comedian is of Moroccan origin, but it was his Judaism that Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television and website chose to focus on recently, when it accused Elmaleh of having served in the Israeli army. There is no evidence this is true, and the actor’s manager bluntly stated that it was untrue. However, Elmaleh was frightened enough to cancel his performances at Beiteddine.

We can speculate about why Hezbollah prevented a stand-up comedy act. Then again the party has always been immune to the temptations of humor. Partly, it was to commandeer the right of being gatekeeper to prominent visiting Jews; partly, it appears to have been a message to Walid Jumblatt, whose wife, Nora, heads the Beiteddine Festival, that his reconciliation with Hezbollah will come on the party’s terms. However, what the incident really showed was that Hezbollah is most comfortable when inhibiting a pluralistic political and cultural Lebanese order.

When will the party’s anti-democratic impulses get more coverage than they do? Hezbollah is difficult to ignore, but does that have to mean that those engaging the party need never raise objections about its behavior? For example, whether Hezbollah’s leaders are meeting with useful idiots like the former US president, Jimmy Carter, or with representatives of the United Kingdom, never do we get a sense that it pays any price for being a near totalistic organization, wedded to violence, that will flaunt its indifference to the Lebanese state and United Nations decisions. Carter has never seen an Islamist he doesn’t like, while the Gordon Brown government resumed its dialogue with Hezbollah despite ample evidence that the party had violated UN resolutions the UK voted for.

The same holds for quite a few Arab and foreign journalists and observers who have cut the party considerable slack over the years. It is a common subtext in the international media to hear how Lebanon’s traditional political leaders are autocratic, but almost never is that demerit applied to Hezbollah. One reason is that access to the party is difficult, so journalists will usually avoid jeopardizing that access. Another is that there is an instinctive fascination with Hezbollah for being so different than what is otherwise found in Lebanon, so that its social networks and communal popularity are seen as compensating for its absolutist tendencies.

Not enough has been written or said about this aspect of Hezbollah. The party has many facets, but what it fears most is uncontrolled pluralism and shifts in the status quo that might threaten its power. Hezbollah is by nature a Leninist party that only allows dissent in the shadow of centralized discipline, which cannot make it particularly tolerant of Lebanon’s open ways. That’s why it has sided with the bullies in Iran, and has again chosen to act like a bully in Lebanon at the start of a cultural season which we naively thought might pass without a hitch.