Friday, February 25, 2011

Little appetite for a government

The prime minister-elect, Najib Mikati, must be wondering how much latitude he really has to form a government. Even if the blockages are in Beirut, events in the Middle East have further complicated his task.

The most visible obstacle facing Mikati is Michel Aoun. The general has demanded an inordinately large share of ministers, enough to hold veto power over government decisions, as well as either the Interior Ministry portfolio or that of financial affairs, which the prime minister-elect wants to offer to his political ally, Mohammad Safadi. All efforts to persuade Aoun to compromise have failed.

The enormity of Aoun’s appetite is a headache for his allies; but it is also tactically understandable given the general’s political agenda and, more broadly, the regional context in which Lebanon finds itself.

Here’s why. It is increasingly apparent that the Syrian leadership is in no hurry to see a new government formed. With the situation unraveling regionally and the possibility that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon may indict Syrian officials in the coming weeks, Damascus is not keen to take steps in Beirut that might constrain its margin of maneuver while also inviting international opprobrium. The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is not about to make the same mistake he did when he extended Emile Lahoud’s mandate in 2004.

Assad probably has three major concerns. If Syrians are implicated in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the president will want to ensure that any new Lebanese government is capable of shielding Syria. In all likelihood that means that Saad Hariri must in some way be represented, because only he has the standing to grant Damascus a certificate of innocence in his father’s killing. A government dominated by Hezbollah and Aoun could never do that. In fact it is more likely to intensify Assad’s tribulations if Syria finds itself confronting a hostile international community over the tribunal.

A second concern for Assad is that his regional allies are unhappy. We know that the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, expressed displeasure with developments in Lebanon when he met Assad in Aleppo a few weeks ago. That displeasure is apparently shared by another state that has supported Syria in recent years, namely Qatar. The Qataris saw their efforts to help find a solution in Beirut after the government’s collapse derailed by Hezbollah, which rejected outright the return of Hariri as prime minister.

Moreover, Assad knows that France is also keeping close tabs on Syrian steps in Lebanon. The French warned Assad when he visited Paris last that Syria would be held responsible for instability in the country. Assad cannot afford strained relations with France, Turkey and Qatar in the shadow of the Special Tribunal indictment.

A third concern for the Syrian president is the regional upsurge taking place against authoritarian regimes. Until now Syria has been spared unrest, but Assad cannot take chances. Any blame directed against Syrians in the Hariri affair and backed up by international pressure to deliver suspects to the tribunal could challenge the authority of his regime. This, in turn, could give ideas to those who stand opposed to Assad’s rule. In times of crisis the Syrians prefer to bide their time. Forcing too hasty an outcome in Beirut, they realize, could backfire.

Hezbollah’s priorities are different from Syria’s in this regard. The party is in a hurry to establish a government in order to officially terminate Lebanon’s ties with the Special Tribunal and move ahead with the investigation of so-called “false witnesses.” However, the party cannot readily ignore Syrian vacillation. Even if Damascus has remained ambiguous over the new government, not declaring itself for or against an early resolution to the current stalemate, this ambiguity has effectively slowed Mikati’s negotiations.

In light of this, Aoun’s intransigence makes more sense. If Syrian interests prevail and no government is formed until after the tribunal issues its indictment, then the general has no motivation to be flexible. And if Hezbollah is so keen to impose an agreement now over a government, then the only way it can realistically do so is by satisfying Aoun’s conditions. Aoun could tell his critics in March 8 that he has backed Hezbollah enough in difficult times not to have to undermine his own political ambitions today on the party’s behalf.

And what are Aoun’s ambitions? Evidently, to gain substantial sway in the government, impose himself as the sole Christian interlocutor, and eventually replace Michel Sleiman in office, under the pretext that the president’s election was unconstitutional. Indeed, under Article 49 of the constitution, and absent a constitutional amendment mandating an exception, Sleiman was obligated to resign from his post as commander of the army two years before being elected.

Had Aoun been named president in 1989, when the Taif Accord was being negotiated, it is doubtful that he would have been so scrupulous. But the narrow reality is that even March 14 politicians, for example Boutros Harb, contested Sleiman’s election on constitutional grounds. Aoun now sees an opening to strike, most probably by having 10 of his deputies appeal to the Constitutional Council, then using his veto power to hold the government hostage.

Aoun will probably be unsuccessful in the end, but that’s irrelevant. He regards the situation today as his last opportunity to satisfy his presidential aspirations and more. If he wants his political movement to survive, especially in the hands of his son-in-law, then Aoun needs to make personnel appointments in the administration, the army and the security services to protect his stakes. That is another reason why he needs to reinforce his leverage over the government.

Amid these intricate local and regional calculations, Mikati’s challenge is a singularly difficult one. He has nothing to gain from forming a government of “one color,” since he would end up being marginal in it, while March 14 is reportedly on the verge of refusing to join in a cabinet of national unity. So, for now, we seem to be in a deadlock. But can we expect Hezbollah to give in so easily?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Statements won't halt Gadhafi's crimes

Consider for one moment the savagery in Libya this week, when Moammar Gadhafi unleashed his jets, helicopter gunships, and artillery on own people. Then place that against a backdrop of the speech on Tuesday by the stuttering psychopath himself, followed by his instructions to hunt down and butcher his opponents.

Do that, and then tell us, without wincing, that had some foreign power or powers magically deployed the military means to shoot down Gadhafi’s aircraft and bomb his soldiers, you would not, deep down, have taken immense satisfaction in the results – regardless of whether the United Nations had authorized the move.

It’s in times like these that the formal institutions of international relations tend to break down. What we’re witnessing today we already witnessed in early 1991, when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein used his tanks and helicopters to crush a Shiite uprising after his army’s withdrawal from Kuwait. At the time the George H. W. Bush administration permitted the massacre to continue, fearing that any intervention might topple the Iraqi regime, creating a vacuum in Baghdad. Extraordinarily, Washington somehow managed to recognize Saddam both as an agent of instability in the Gulf and one of stability at home.

That delicate American adjustment of the geopolitical dials may have imposed some quiet in the region, but at a terrible human cost. Tens of thousands – some say the figure is closer to a couple of hundred thousand – of Iraqis were killed, most of them Shiites. This was followed by a 12-year U.N. sanctions regime that debilitated the Iraqi population but also strengthened Saddam’s rule. Oddly, many of those who later demanded that President George W. Bush gain U.N. approval before sending American forces to Iraq were the very same who had earlier denounced U.N. sanctions as inhuman.

What can the international community do to confront homicidal leaders like Gadhafi? One answer came precisely two decades ago, when it did virtually nothing against Saddam Hussein. A no-fly zone was imposed over northern and southern Iraq (and some are calling for such a zone to be declared over Libya), but otherwise the Baath leadership reasserted its authority over Iraqi lives unhindered. In 2003 Bush provoked much international displeasure by ordering an invasion of the country. However, many of those who expressed outrage with American actions never bothered to qualify that outrage by recalling Saddam Hussein’s serial brutality throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when he was directly or indirectly responsible for the death of not far from 1 million people – including Kurds, Shiites, and other opponents of his regime, as well as Iraqi and Iranian soldiers and civilians killed in the Iraq-Iran war that Saddam had initiated.

Gadhafi, like Saddam Hussein before him, is not someone who would ever consider ceding power peacefully. He is not someone apt to read the solemn reports of non-governmental organizations and embrace their recommendations, or tolerate independent monitors examining the work of his people’s committees. There are autocrats and there are autocrats. No one truly regrets the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, but the worst the former Egyptian president could do was dispatch camel-riding thugs to disperse his assembled critics. Only once did Egyptian fighters fly over the demonstrations, and it was not to strafe civilians.

But when dealing with Gadhafi’s Libya, as with Saddam’s Iraq, the conceptual boundaries of international intervention change. With such individuals, we enter into the sinister world of unaccountable mass murder. It’s fine for the U.N. Security Council to demand, as it did on Tuesday, that Gadhafi’s regime “meet its responsibility to protect its population,” act with restraint, and show deference to human rights and international humanitarian law. However, this is only useful if it underpins a more potent rejoinder, including possibly seeking Gadhafi’s indictment for crimes against humanity, denying his military the means to bomb civilians, and laying the groundwork for international recognition of an alternative Libyan leadership.

For now there is still much pussyfooting over Libya. The United States, ever fearful of an Islamist takeover in Tripoli, has limited its official reaction to ejaculations of indignation over Gadhafi’s ferocity. It seems increasingly obvious that Barack Obama is just not very good at adopting unambiguous positions on mass repression – whether it takes place in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, or now Libya. The president, so eloquent when it comes to expressing abstract values in Muslim-Western relations, is without a moral compass when facing reality.

If Obama does not take the lead on Libya, or on how to manage the momentous changes in the Middle East, no one will. In fact no one has. Europe is governed by a gaggle of superintendents devoid of any vision, whose principal preoccupation is reviving their injured economies. Say what you will about Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, it’s difficult not to regret their absence watching the European leaders of today. But Washington is offering no contrast. Gadhafi is perhaps right in assuming that if he can turn the situation in Libya around quickly enough, Western leaders will swallow their disgust and deal with him, because the stability of oil markets demands it.

The greater probability is that this is the end for the Libyan leader. Even if he manages to tighten his grip on Tripoli, Gadhafi may not have the necessary means to reconquer his country. But let’s assume for a moment that he does. Should the international community, in particular the United States, allow that to happen? Hasn’t Gadhafi done enough to earn more than just a few disobliging communiqués? He has, but good luck in finding someone to show him the door.

Friday, February 18, 2011

March 14’s hazy self-definition

This week March 14 again indicated that it intended to oppose a government headed by Najib Mikati if it were shaped by the priorities of Hezbollah and Michel Aoun. Mikati still wants to reach a consensus with March 14. But for now, does the former majority have what it takes to win a confrontation if it were to definitely decide to stay out of Mikati’s government, assuming one will actually be formed?

In his speech on the sixth anniversary of his father’s assassination, Saad Hariri listed the three principles guiding the new opposition: a commitment to the Lebanese constitution; a commitment to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon; and a commitment to protecting public and private life in Lebanon from the threat of weapons. All this as leaders of the former majority have engaged in sustained self-criticism for having disappointed their political base in recent years.

Self-criticism can be a good thing, but in this case it may not be enough. Hariri’s speech at the BIEL on Monday, like that of the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, essentially announced a fundamental philosophical rupture with the new majority over the principles of Lebanon’s social contract. That was to be expected, and it was undoubtedly time for someone to affirm without ambiguity that a sovereign Lebanon cannot conceivably coexist with an armed group that is more powerful militarily than the state. But surely, in order to succeed down the road, March 14 must tell us a bit more.

The Lebanese constitution, no less than the special tribunal and the implied or overt violence routinely directed by one group of Lebanese against the other, is undeniably of vital importance. Lebanon will remain a dysfunctional country until all three are resolved. However, if March 14 is to have any chance against a Lebanese government controlled by its political adversaries—a government that will almost certainly seek to eliminate the levers still held by March 14 in the system—then it must offer a broader program to its followers.

It is no longer enough to say that March 14 represents a different vision than Hezbollah and its allies. At this stage this vision needs to be carefully defined, and then transformed into a program of opposition. Though many Lebanese believe in the special tribunal, in the constitution and in the need for the state to provide security to all its citizens, most of them have more immediate concerns: economic stability, the high cost of living, bureaucratic corruption, the quality of their children’s education, the precarious supply of electricity and water, and myriad other problems the state has failed to resolve.

Neither Hezbollah nor Aoun has offered a systematic agenda for reform, but March 14 hasn’t either. And yet to capture the imagination of the Lebanese, the former majority will need to move beyond the constitution, the tribunal and safety from Hezbollah’s weapons, and address reform in a convincing way. Perhaps March 14’s inclination is to dump the sick Lebanese state into the lap of Hezbollah and Aoun so that they can absorb the blame for the breakdowns likely to occur. But what kind of shallow scheme is that for a political alignment that claims to embody Lebanon’s salvation?

Control of the state would be a powerful weapon in the hands of Syria, Hezbollah and Aoun. They would use that weapon, even if they anger many people by seeking to marginalize their political foes. That’s because there is legitimacy attached to the state. In 1992, Christians largely boycotted parliamentary elections. But the credibility of parliament survived and the state functioned normally without Christian endorsement. When new elections came around in 1996, many in the community recognized that it would have been better to be in the system than outside of it and went to the polls in droves.

For March 14 to be seen as a credible alternative to a state controlled by Syria, Hezbollah and Michel Aoun, it must think as if it were in charge of the state. For a time it was—at least of a sizable portion of the state. However, it never managed to stand for something distinct in Lebanese minds, hence the apologies now being issued.

For all its shortcomings, March 14 has respected the limits of Lebanon’s social contract. It has understood that sectarian intimidation can only elicit the same dangerous aspiration from those on the receiving end. March 14 has quite rightly concluded that the state alone should have a monopoly over the use of force, and that imposed coexistence between the national army and an armed group that is independent of the state, under the rubric “the army, the people, and the resistance,” is bound to fail. And March 14 has understood that Lebanon cannot survive by forever seeking out conflicts regionally and internationally, egged on by supreme egoists whose ultimate political objective is the stifling of pluralism.

But March 14 can also no longer afford to define itself merely by telling the Lebanese what it stands against. If the coalition’s leaders feel that now is the time to do battle over Lebanon’s future, in government or out, then let them inform their supporters, perhaps even themselves, what a March 14-dominated future would look like.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lebanon's feuding sides draw rival inspirations from Egypt

Although Hizbollah and Iran hailed the ouster of the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as a political defeat for their enemies, it is not at all certain that Sunnis in some parts of the Arab world, particularly in Lebanon, were distressed by the transformations in Cairo.

Iran's satisfaction, and that of its Arab followers, derived from a short-term appraisal that Mr Mubarak's departure was a setback for the United States. However, nothing yet indicates that Washington has "lost" Egypt. In fact, America's regional role may be strengthened if its Arab friends become more democratic, or just more pluralistic. After all, the protests in Tunisia and Egypt confirmed the deep detestation for - and therefore the fragility of - an American-led network of regional alliances resting on a foundation of despotism.

For many Arabs, the Sunni majority especially, developments in Egypt produced an electric moment for other reasons. Much of the reaction was related to perceptions rather than reality, since the final outcome in Cairo remains to be seen. However, a wave of optimism swept throughout the Middle East when Mr Mubarak stepped down because here, it seemed, was a genuinely new morning for the Arabs, another sign, after Tunisia, of freshness and life in a desiccated wasteland of authoritarianism. And this time it was occurring in the land that had once best embodied Arab post-colonial confidence, under the Arab nationalist regime of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Mr Nasser's failings were irrelevant. Egypt re-entered the powerful realm of political allegory, the popular overthrow of the Mubarak regime providing grist for a narrative of Arab democratic renaissance. Interpretations could vary depending on which Arab state one lived in, but it is probably fair to say that many Arabs viewed matters, at least partly, in sectarian terms: this was not only Egypt's moment; not only a moment of affirmation for a new and liberated Arab man (or woman); it was also a moment of reaffirmation for a wider Sunni community that had steadily seen its regional vigour decline in the presence of a Shiite Iran and pro-Iranian groups that have borrowed effectively the symbols of Arab nationalism, hitherto Sunni symbols.

This sense of Arab rejuvenation may cut in inconsistent directions. Arab mistrust of the United States might grow, but ultimately the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts were a demand to be part of the modern world, not to be isolated from it. Gone are the binary choices of the Cold War years. And in such a fluid political environment it is difficult to imagine net winners and losers in a future Middle East, not least if international actors adopt new ways of interacting with Arab regimes less able to enforce the stifling paternalism of the past.

Lebanon, where regional dynamics often play out with the greatest impact, provides a useful illustration of the paradoxes released by events in Egypt. Mr Mubarak's exit was greeted with celebratory gunfire in Beirut's southern suburbs, controlled by Hizbollah. Yet the party's main rival, the Sunni Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, seemed no less energised. Egypt has apparently become whatever one wants it to be. Hizbollah may have seen a setback for the Obama administration; but Mr Hariri saw a victory against the rule of the gun, which this week in a speech on the sixth anniversary of the assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri, he turned against Hizbollah, which had deployed its weapons to intimidate Lebanon's Sunnis.

The transformations in Egypt could have an indirect bearing on a number of political and legal challenges that Lebanon will soon have to confront. Hizbollah and Syria recently brought down Mr Hariri's government, and have instead backed Najib Miqati's efforts to form a new government. This government, if it sees the light of day, will be of a single political colouration, since Mr Hariri and his allies in the March 14 coalition have refused to join. The reason is that they believe that Mr Miqati has already agreed to a Hizbollah condition that he end Lebanon's ties with a special tribunal that is preparing indictments on Rafik Hariri's assassination.

This makes for a combustible sectarian mix. A Miqati government perceived by most Sunnis as being formed against their interests will find it difficult to rule through any kind of consensus. This difficulty will be compounded if the government goes through with obstructing the process of uncovering Rafik Hariri's killers, at a time when the Shiite Hizbollah may be accused of involvement in the crime. If, as some observers have suggested, Syrian officials are also named in an indictment, this can only further exacerbate ambient tensions.

The Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt once declared that the murder of Mr Hariri was an act designed to prevent the emergence of a "strong Sunni". In that case, Egypt may have just shifted the goal posts. If Egyptians could overcome their fear of the superior firepower of security forces; if they could impose justice on an unjust leader; and if all this could send shockwaves of pride throughout the Middle East, because Egypt once again was a vanguard for Sunni Arabs, then there is no reason these messages cannot echo in Beirut. Hizbollah and Syria's guns can be overcome, justice in the Hariri assassination can triumph, and Sunnis in general can be the stronger for it.

This, at least, is the defiant Sunni emotion that Syria, Hizbollah and their Lebanese comrades may soon have to address. On Tuesday, Saad Hariri took a hard line on the political crisis in Lebanon, outlining a programme for tougher opposition to his domestic political foes, above all Hizbollah. Instability lies ahead for the country, but this time the story may blend with the romanticism generated by two successful Arab uprisings elsewhere. The consequences are unpredictable.

Najib Mikati: What might have been

While the March 14 coalition used the sixth anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s assassination to reiterate its refusal to join the government being formed by Najib Mikati, you have to wonder if the former majority approached the matter in an optimal way.

Hezbollah and the Aounists have refused to grant March 14 a blocking third in a new government, because this would permit Saad Hariri to defeat a cabinet vote to end the agreement signed with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. But the tensions generated by Hezbollah’s and Michel Aoun’s decision to deny March 14 veto power (when they received veto power in two March 14-led governments) could have been used more profitably by the former majority.

On the second day of presidential consultations to name a new prime minister, the former Minister Suleiman Franjieh announced that he would agree to concede a blocking third to March 14 in a Mikati government. Allegedly, Franjieh had not received Syrian approval for his proposal, and the statement was viewed as an effort to draw March 14 into negotiations that would have legitimized Mikati.

March 14 refused to be drawn in, on the grounds that Mikati was the façade of a Hezbollah coup. Yet the coalition seemed to contradict itself when the Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, and former President Amin Gemayel met with Mikati to expose their requirements for participation – namely the prime minister-elect’s stance on the special tribunal and Hezbollah’s weapons. Meanwhile, Hariri had left Beirut for Paris, indicating, intentionally or not, that he was noncommittal toward the feelers being put out to Mikati.

Another approach might have been more fruitful. When Taha Mikati visited Hariri before consultations to name a new prime minister, he asked that Hariri back his brother Najib. Hariri, angry with what he deemed to be the Mikatis’ treachery, refused. But by then it was a foregone conclusion that Najib Mikati would be asked to form a government. Hariri perhaps would have done better to host Najib, call in the media, and show himself to be the patron of a Mikati government because, he might have stated, he knew the future prime minister-elect would defend the special tribunal. Hariri could have gone further to declare that he would insist on veto power for March 14 in the government, because the breakdown of seats in Parliament and the precedent set by governments past, justified the demand.

This would have put Mikati in a difficult position. By picking a fight over veto power, and borrowing Franjieh’s statement as validation, Hariri would have imposed on the prime minister-elect a choice between forming a government of national unity or bowing to Hezbollah’s dictates and losing Hariri’s blessing. Conceivably, Mikati would have had no choice but to refuse to surrender veto power to March 14; or he might have explored an alternative distribution of cabinet shares, allowing March 14 to collaborate with President Michel Suleiman, who has no desire to fall under Hezbollah’s and Aoun’s sway. In that way March 14 could have created openings to prevent the new majority from taking over the system.

Either way, this scheme would have allowed March 14 to heighten the contradictions between Mikati and Hezbollah and Aoun, while buying time for the special tribunal to move ahead in confirming the draft indictments prepared by the prosecution. And had Mikati failed to make headway because of pressures from Hezbollah and Aoun, he would have burned himself politically from the outset. March 14 would have been able to then pull out of the cabinet formation process, but with more justification than today. Mikati’s negligible room to maneuver would have focused a brighter light on the fact that to undermine the tribunal, Hezbollah and Aoun were willing to scuttle an accord over a government of national consensus.

Sometimes even a tactical gain can have a strong repercussions. Last week Syria urged Mikati to try once again to put together a national-unity government. This came after an acrimonious meeting in Aleppo between the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Syria’s President Bashar Assad. The Turks are said to be unhappy with Hariri’s isolation and evidently, like the Qataris, are uneasy with the prospect that a Lebanese government backed by Syria will soon confront the international community over the special tribunal.

The Syrians may be thinking of other prospective challenges as well. Assad must be wary of how the ouster of two Arab autocrats might affect his own rule, amid protests throughout the Middle East. His vulnerability regionally and internationally may be exacerbated if Syrian officials are named in the special tribunal’s indictment. And the last thing Assad wants, with all that going on, is to be perceived in the Arab world as siding against Lebanon’s Sunni community.

Had Hariri and March 14 made a push for veto power, it is possible that Syria would have compromised somewhere and sought to bargain with the former majority. There was no certainty in this, but by addressing the government formation process differently, March 14 might have produced exploitable opportunities. After all, the essence of Saad Hariri’s strategy these past months has been to use the tribunal as leverage to negotiate with Syria and Hezbollah and win concessions that, he believes, might strengthen Lebanese sovereignty.

Today March 14 has taken on a double-or-nothing wager. It may yet succeed, but consenting to the transfer of state powers to Hezbollah and Aoun, without first having tried more seriously to prevent this outcome, is risky. Mikati’s government, when or if it is formed, will doubtless struggle. But for it to fall will require a tremendous amount of domestic strain, and the Lebanese will suffer as a consequence.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Egypt makes Israel nervous for all the wrong reasons

According to a State Department cable written in August 2008 and posted on the website of The Daily Telegraph this week, Israeli officials favoured General Omar Suleiman to succeed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "There is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of" Mr Suleiman taking power, an American diplomat in Tel Aviv reported to his superiors.

That's no surprise. The Israelis have been very nervous about developments in Egypt, fearing that a new government may terminate the peace treaty with Israel. But Israel would not welcome another more likely, if less catastrophic, scenario either: if Egypt were to become more open, as a former American official, Aaron David Miller wrote in The Washington Post last Friday, "diverse voices reflecting Islamist currents and secular nationalists will be louder. And by definition, these voices will be more critical of America and Israel".

Israel is right to be worried, but for all the wrong reasons. In a very profound sense, the country has been living an illusion in the Middle East. It has long assumed that peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, like those steps leading toward normalisation with other Arab countries, constitute a safeguard against having to address the complexities of an often dubious Arab environment. Here is Israel insisting that it means to be a part of the region by hook or by crook, yet is oblivious to strong popular undercurrents of dissatisfaction with the authoritarian regimes with which it had concluded its bargains.

Successive Israeli leaders wrongly assumed that being of the region was a condition that could be satisfied by dealing solely with Arab political and economic elites, while abandoning Israel's responsibility to reinforce the desirability of peace within Arab societies. Israel has pursued policies with respect to the Palestinians that have convinced a majority of Arabs, rightly or wrongly, that peace is a sham. And Israeli dependency on friendly autocrats only brings home the paradox that peace is a benefit that must somehow be imposed.

Another difficulty in Israel's position has to do with the longstanding belief, inside Israeli society and in the West, that the country is "the only democracy" in the Middle East. That's questionable, but Israel is certainly a democracy for its Jewish citizens. However, the quiet antagonism of the Netanyahu government toward events in Egypt (and any other Israeli government would have reacted in the same way), suggests that the Israelis' belief in the uniqueness of their democracy in the region is self-fulfilling. In other words, Israel is the sole democracy and will ensure that it remains the sole democracy by heading off efforts in Arab societies to achieve the same level of popular self-determination.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hosni’s very balanced system

The Obama administration’s recent shifts on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have betrayed American confusion over the way his regime is structured. That’s mystifying: Egypt is among America’s closest Arab allies and the second-largest recipient of foreign aid.

Last week, President Barack Obama issued a statement saying, “My belief is that an orderly transition [in Egypt] must be meaningful, must be peaceful, and it must begin now.” Obama’s press secretary clarified the thought a day later, observing: “When we said ‘now,’ we meant ‘yesterday’ ... That's what the people of Egypt want to see.”

However, over the weekend the United States backtracked from its demand that Mubarak exit quickly. In Munich, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned against too early a departure, declaring that a two-month deadline for a presidential election “doesn’t give anybody any time” to prepare for a smooth changeover.

The flip-flopping showed how little the United States has grasped the greatest talent of Arab regimes: manufacturing stalemate. Amid the rapid developments soon after Egypt’s saga began, the administration thought it could direct a speedy change in gears. Mubarak would quietly leave office (and American officials and envoys were on hand to push him out), his recently-appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, would take over for a transitional period, and Egypt would move toward stability, supervised by the pro-American military.

That may yet happen, but the Americans never asked why Mubarak resisted this convenient scenario, and why the army has seemed so reluctant to disagree with him. The fact is that even to the hardened men of the Egyptian regime, Mubarak is a patron whom they’re not used to dealing without. For three decades the president has protected their interests, has appointed most of them to their posts, knows their dirty little secrets and their enmities, and overall has structured Egypt’s military, political and economic hierarchies in such a way that different power centers can cancel each other out.

For Washington to assume that Suleiman has the legitimacy to abruptly replace Mubarak is to assume –optimistically, even hubristically – that the chief of the General Intelligence Directorate has the unanimous backing of senior military commanders and other officials. Suleiman may yet earn that legitimacy, but he will have to work very hard to do so in a system in which fellow officers will make him pay a steep price for their approval. They will expect him to defend both their personal welfare and that of the armed forces. Moreover, Suleiman was only promoted under duress, consequently his latitude to make concessions to the opposition is limited.

Herein lays a dilemma: If Mubarak stays on in office, even with restricted powers (if this is in any way realistic), Suleiman’s margin of maneuver in a transitional period will be narrow; but if Mubarak leaves office, Suleiman will struggle even more to fill the ensuing vacuum. Mubarak sits atop an equilibrium that he has imposed and presided over for many years. He is the glue tying together the different limbs of the regime writ large – the armed forces, the security services, the National Democratic Party, the military-dominated economic sectors, the pro-Mubarak business elite, and so on.

This is hardly to suggest that the Egyptian leader must stay in power. Rather, it is to point out the complexities of getting him out of power, which the Obama administration should have been more sensitive to before sonorously setting a virtual deadline for Mubarak’s removal.

In assuming that Egypt’s institutions could be bent out of shape in line with their own priorities, the Americans failed to see that Egypt doesn’t quite function in that way. Its institutions may often be dysfunctional, but that doesn’t mean that Egyptians will readily endorse their debasement. Which is why Mubarak’s foolhardy project to bring his son, Gamal, to power sat so poorly with his countrymen.

Barack Obama will need to show more patience than he has shown to resolve his Egyptian headache. He failed to hoodwink Mubarak, but the answer lies not in hoodwinking the protestors. Washington cannot afford a void in Egypt, but nor should it presume that its own salvation lies in sponsoring a new authoritarian leadership.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Can Lebanon kill its own tribunal?

Reading between the lines of NOW Lebanon’s interview this week with François Roux, the head of the defense office at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, one immediately senses a tension that has yet to be resolved between the legal and political dimensions of the upcoming trial of those suspected of involvement in the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri.

This has been both the strength and the Achilles Heel of the tribunal process. On the one side you have the judges and lawyers in Leidschendam, for whom the assassinations in Lebanon in 2005 provide grist for a stimulating judicial case, away from political intrigue; on the other you have a majority of Lebanese, who have focused on the political repercussions of the Special Tribunal. Until now the conventional wisdom is that politics will not impact on the pursuit of justice and that the tribunal “cannot be stopped.”

But how true is that? Yes, the tribunal probably cannot be stopped, but it can be shot through with enough arrows so that its foundations and credibility may be damaged, and its activities slowed down.

It’s not clear what the prime minister-elect, Najib Mikati, will do about the tribunal once he forms a government. Many insist that he was appointed on condition that he revoke the agreement with the tribunal, cease funding for the institution, and recall the Lebanese judges. However, Mikati has implicitly denied this, telling the French-daily Le Figaro this week, “My position is clear, unless the Lebanese decide to reconsider [relations with the tribunal], unanimously and with Arab support, the government remains committed to respecting the protocol with the United Nations on the tribunal.”

Until we can determine whether that’s true, we must give Mikati the benefit of the doubt. But for the sake of argument, what would happen if a new cabinet did break with the tribunal? This was a question posed to Roux, and he was understandably evasive. “A new government is bound by agreements that were signed by a previous government,” he answered, adding: “The tribunal will continue to do its work. It does not change anything. A government might fall, but the state continues.”

The consensus view is that even if Lebanon fails to pay its 49 percent share of the institution’s budget, alternative sources of funding will be found. Several states have already offered to cover the shortfall. As for Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal, the tribunal’s official position is that this is mandatory because the agreement Lebanon signed with the body came under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Article 15 of the agreement itself also makes cooperation compulsory.

There is less sanguineness, however, when it comes to the judges, who were named not by Beirut but by the Security Council. An effort by a new cabinet to remove the judges is bound to agitate at least some of the Lebanese named to the tribunal’s offices. If they succumb to the pressures from home, it may not be easy for the tribunal to find replacements. Perhaps some judges may be sought out in the diaspora, in itself hardly ideal; or some effort would have to be made to find judges in Lebanon willing to replace their shaken peers. However, such an endeavor could delay proceedings. And if this leads nowhere, according to some observers more radical measures might have to be considered, such as placing the tribunal under full UN authority.

A Lebanese divorce from the Special Tribunal would play against the initial intent underlying the tribunal’s establishment: to bolster the rule of law in Lebanon, and more specifically to ensure that there would no longer be impunity for political assassination in the country. That was why the tribunal was conceived as a mixed body, and it is why the prosecutor and UN investigators in Beirut until today are dependent on the Lebanese judiciary and security services to implement their requests. If the tribunal were to lose its Lebanese identity, this could seriously undermine the rationale of the enterprise as a whole.

This disconnect between Lebanon and the tribunal would be taken to its extreme if none of the individuals indicted is in the dock, so that the trial is conducted mostly or entirely in absentia. Asked about his effectiveness in such a trial, Roux responded: “Our role in the case of absentia trials is all the more important. Because this is a novelty in international law. This is the first time that we can have such a trial. Our role would be to support defense teams in that scenario by putting all our skills at their disposal, so that a trial like that can be a success.”

But what would constitute “success” if no one is in court, if Lebanon proclaims that it will have nothing to do with the tribunal, and if the idealistic ambitions that accompanied the setting up of the institution have all evaporated? If success means the process moves forward to some intellectually stimulating climax, because the case embodies legal novelties, but with none of the guilty ever punished, then this seems a fairly low standard. The Lebanese surely deserve better.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Why Arabs have airbrushed Lebanon out

One thing has been intriguing me since the beginning of the popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Why is it that virtually everyone, in describing the novelty of the moment, invariably fails to mention Lebanon’s Independence Intifada of 2005?

A passage from an article by my colleague Rami Khouri provides a useful summary of the prevailing view of recent developments in the Arab world: “Never before have we had entire Arab populations stand up and insist on naming their rulers, shaping their governance system, and defining the values that drive their domestic and foreign policies,” he writes. “Never before have we had free Arab citizenries in pursuit of self-determination. Never before have we seen grassroots political, social and religious movements compel leaders to change their cabinets and re-order the role of the armed forces and police.”

What is taking place invites such lyricism. But isn’t Khouri forgetting Lebanon just six years ago, in the dark hours after Rafik Hariri’s assassination? Then, too, a majority of Lebanese stood up and insisted on naming their rulers, shaping their governance system, and defining their foreign policy – until then veneers for Syrian dictates. A cabinet was brought down under popular pressure, and soon thereafter four security chiefs were made to resign. The Lebanese held a parliamentary election that was surprisingly democratic, and the breakdown of seats, on all sides, reflected accurately the alignment of forces existing during the days of the Independence Intifada.

Much has also been made of the fact that Tunisia’s upsurge against Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was led by an educated middle class. But so too were the Lebanese rallies against Syria, even if at the time this provoked more disdain than approval, as those in search of Oriental authenticity mocked what they called a “Gucci revolution.”

Why is it that no one in the Arab world, or for that matter in the West, has been inclined to bring up that electric Lebanese episode as they watch events unfolding in the streets of Tunis and Cairo? It’s not sufficient to point to the checkered aftermath of the Independence Intifada to justify that omission. For one thing, the intifada was a striking success, as liberal indignation with the killing of a former prime minister ultimately obliged Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon. Such occasions of high emotion come to define themselves, with participants and observers rarely judging their consequences until it’s too late. Protesters want immediate gratification: the overthrow of a hated order. That is their benchmark of achievement.

The Independence Intifada did not excite the Arabs for three reasons. The first is that many did not view the Lebanese system as overly oppressive, so that the plotline of an underdog fighting against great odds was never taken very seriously, though it was surely applicable in 2004-05. After all, to triumph the protesters had to overcome those who had killed Hariri or who had facilitated his elimination; they also had to prevail over the Lebanese Army and security services, who were taking orders from ministers hostile to the protesters; and they had to face down Hezbollah, which sought to intimidate opposition demonstrators on March 8, 2005, with a mass gathering of its own.

A second reason is that the Lebanese uprising was largely non-violent. This was principally because the army and security forces, while they tried repeatedly to frustrate protesters and deny them access to Martyrs Square, never fired on the crowds. Such common sense lessened the drama of the confrontation, unlike the repressive measures of the Tunisian and Egyptian security services that lead to the death of hundreds of civilians, and injury to countless more.

But perhaps the most significant reason why Lebanon 2005 left many Arabs cold, and still does, was that it didn’t quite sit well with their deeper political predispositions. Where developments in Tunisia and Egypt are welcomed as blows against the United States, therefore satisfying regional hostility to the American order in the Middle East, the Lebanese embraced American and international assistance after the Hariri killing. Their intifada took place in the shadow of a United Nations resolution that called on Syria to leave Lebanon, and that implicitly demanded the disarmament of Hezbollah.

Far from perceiving developments in Lebanon as a bracing example of emancipation, many in the Arab world saw it as a victory of the United States and France over Syria and Hezbollah. Therefore, in the bizarre logic prevailing then (and now), it was interpreted as a setback for emancipation – defined as anything that might strengthen Western power in the Middle East. That is why there was none of Al-Jazeera’s selective outrage on hand to warm Arab spirits to the Independence Intifada. The station had always approved of Syria’s and Hezbollah’s agendas in Lebanon, and it still does. The behavior of the Al-Jazeera bureau chief in Beirut has amply demonstrated this fact.

That said, to lament public marginalization of the Independence Intifada is meaningless on its own. That a majority of Arabs will reject any narrative that places the United States in a good light tells us much about Washington’s errors in the region. When was it not obvious, particularly during the post-Cold War period, that America would one day have to choose between its image as global defender of democracy and its sustained support for the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East? Washington sees risks in allowing Arab states to go their own way, but these are hardly more threatening than propping up its regional alliance system with reviled despotisms.

The Lebanese may complain that American approval brought them little after 2005. Syria and Hezbollah are back in the driver’s seat in the country. But nothing worries Damascus, Hezbollah, or Iran more than genuine political pluralism, alternations in leadership, and democratic self-determination. That’s where America’s cards are strongest, not its support for soulless, corroded republican monarchies that have humiliated and beaten their societies into submission, whose demise no one can possibly regret.