Friday, March 18, 2011

Safety last, for Lebanon

In a sign that Egypt is making a comeback on the Arab scene, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry released a statement on Wednesday expressing its worries about Lebanon. Through a spokeswoman, the foreign minister, Nabil al-Araby, declared that Cairo “is closely following Lebanese developments, and is concerned with the increasing polarization and declining room for dialogue.”

Araby is right to be concerned. In the past six years, three long-standing safety nets that Lebanon benefited from to contain its domestic conflicts have frayed severely. While the country is peaceful, and may well remain so, several potentially divisive political tests lie ahead. Without a serious interchange between the Lebanese, the risk that political disputation will turn violent should be taken seriously.

The first of these safety nets is Arab diplomacy. The familiar mechanisms of Arab political intervention in Lebanon lie in ruins today. Until Syria imposed itself in Beirut in 1990, when Lebanon’s war ended, developments in the country fell under the sway mainly of Syria and Saudi Arabia, with Arab sanction, under the watchful eye of the United States, in the shadow of “red lines” set by Israel.

After the Syrian military withdrawal in 2005, Arab diplomacy returned, with the Saudis and Egyptians primarily concerned that Iran was filling the openings left by Syria. Their efforts were mostly unsuccessful. Lebanon became the object of a struggle between Damascus on the one side and Riyadh and Cairo on the other. The result was Saudi Arabia’s greater isolation. For example, its boycott, with Egypt’s, of the Arab League summit in Damascus in March 2008 backfired when most Arab leaders attended. And two months later, it was the Saudis’ rival, Qatar, that brokered an accord to end an 18-month Lebanese deadlock that had nearly led to a new civil war.

With the Middle East now facing rolling upheavals, the Arab state system is in disarray. If Lebanon were to enter into a prolonged crisis, let’s say over the indictment by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, who would be on hand to reconcile the parties? The Saudis are too preoccupied with their own neighborhood; Egypt is going through a major political transformation; and Syria and Iran, like the Saudis and Egyptians, are too close to one side to be acceptable mediators.

As for Qatar and Turkey, despite all the hype about their newborn regional weight, it was obvious how little leverage they had when they sent their foreign ministers on a futile mission to Beirut in the wake of the government’s collapse. Without a broad Arab imprimatur – one that is currently unlikely given regional troubles and cleavages – outside political interventions in Lebanon are bound to fail.

A second safety net that has fallen in recent years is respect for confessional red lines, rhetorical and political, both between and within communities. After the Syrian withdrawal in 2005 and the consequent effort by Hezbollah to fill the vacuum so as to forestall disarmament and the weakening of its semi-independent status, Sunni-Shia hostility rose. On both sides an ugly sectarianism took root, devoid of any will to compromise. This frequently spilled out into the streets, as in January 2007 and May 2008 in Beirut, and on many more occasions in Tripoli between Sunnis and Alawis.

At the same time, Michel Aoun, to bolster his popularity, pursued a populist strategy that involved undermining the accepted norms of communal behavior and rhetoric. Aoun made blunt condemnation of the Sunni community a rallying cry for his supporters. And the general overturned communal conventions by attacking the Maronite patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, and the president, Michel Sleiman, so as to discredit Maronite centers of power not under his control.

A third safety net that has all but disappeared in recent years is that provided by constitutional institutions. The process of decay, to be fair, has been a long one. The war greatly eroded the power of such institutions, and Syria’s 15-year protectorate over Lebanon only accelerated this. During those years, the Lebanese would arrive at an election never sure if would actually be held. Two presidents saw their mandate extended under Syrian duress. The rule of law was applied inconsistently, and the day-to-day functioning of the state after 1998 was largely in the hands of a Syrian intelligence officer.

The Lebanese did not fare much better after 2005. Parliament was closed for over a year because Hezbollah and the speaker, Nabih Berri, sought to block the election of a president after Emile Lahoud’s term ended. When one was finally chosen, the voting itself suffered from a lack of constitutional legitimacy, since Michel Sleiman, as army commander, should have presented his resignation two years earlier. Hezbollah and its allies also reinterpreted the constitution to justify the demand for a blocking third in the cabinet. While this was not strictly unconstitutional, it went against the spirit of the organic law. And even the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was approved in a questionable constitutional way.

In effect, short-term calculation has replaced constitutional predictability and legitimacy as the benchmark for political action. This can be disastrous, for creating a state functioning on the basis of improvisation and bargaining, in other words a state by default. Managing Lebanon’s challenges effectively will require something sturdier. But don’t expect Lebanon’s political class to provide it.

No comments: