Thursday, March 24, 2011

Shield Lebanon from the Arab upheavals

Two developments in the past 24 hours, one inside Lebanon, the other in neighboring Syria, have the potential to exacerbate communal relations between Sunnis and Shiites in the coming months. It would be irresponsible for Lebanese officials, on both sides of the country’s growing political divide, do nothing about this.

The first is news that the prime minister-elect, Najib Mikati, has shown President Michel Sleiman the first draft of his Cabinet lineup. If a government is formed soon, all the indications are that it will harden dissension in Beirut. Hezbollah and Michel Aoun will use the government to advance agendas that March 14 views as anathema. At the same time, the departing prime minister, Saad Hariri, has made public censure of Hezbollah and its weapons a cornerstone of his political strategy, and this will extend to the new Cabinet. The predictable result of all this is a widening of the Sunni-Shiite rift.

The second development comes from Syria, where the news on Wednesday was that the security forces had stormed a mosque in Daraa, killing at least six people. It’s unclear where the situation is going, but things are more likely to get worse than better in the foreseeable future. The great danger is that Syrian instability will eventually take on a sectarian coloring. And what happens in Syria could have daunting sectarian repercussions in Beirut.

Lebanese politicians have rarely appeared so at odds with one another, and never have they allowed their disagreements to be expressed as much, explicitly or implicitly, in sectarian terms. Indeed, they have come to rely inordinately on sectarian symbolism, solidarities, and animosities to rally support. Complicating matters, the politicians have linked these actions to similar impulses regionally.

It is perfectly understandable for Hariri to condemn Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah when the Hezbollah leader chooses to immerse himself in the affairs of Bahrain, where Sunnis and Shiites are fighting over the kingdom’s future. Lebanon, given its complex sectarian makeup, has no interest in taking a stand on Bahrain, let alone playing along with Nasrallah’s ambition to bolster other Arab upheavals (though Hezbollah has been dead silent on repression in Iran and Syria).

However, Hariri has also shown little hesitation in pushing the sectarian envelope, albeit more subtly. His foreign allegiances were all too clear on March 13, when a large portrait of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was unfurled above Martyrs Square. And by focusing on Hezbollah’s arms without offering a political quid pro quo as an incentive to the Shiite community, all the caretaker prime minister and March 14 are doing is strengthening a perception among Shiites that disarmament is a byword for their marginalization.

As implausible as this may sound, now is the time for Hariri and Nasrallah to establish mechanisms to cushion the ominous impact of regional turmoil on Lebanese affairs. Regardless of the profound personal tensions between the two men, the incompatibility between Hariri’s vision of Lebanon and Hezbollah’s, their divergences over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and much else, the benchmark they should adopt is a simple one: a Sunni-Shiite conflict in Lebanon would be devastating for all; it would be just as fatal to Hezbollah as it would to the political and social system that Hariri seeks to promote.

The safety nets that Lebanon once enjoyed to contain its problems have all precariously eroded in recent years. Arab diplomacy, always on hand to intercede and lessen friction in Beirut, is in disarray because of Arab disarray. Constitutional institutions, which were created to manage political and inter-communal interaction, have been seriously undermined by a succession of events. They were ransacked during the time of Syrian tutelage; and during the post-2005 period, when Hezbollah and its allies faced off against March 14, the constitution was repeatedly undermined for political convenience.

What can Nasrallah and Hariri do to avert the worse? A good starting point is to greatly calm their rhetoric and that of their allies and partisans, and grasp, as much as possible, that everything they say is being fed by the Lebanese into a template of regional confrontation. Such advice may sound nonsensical when both sides have embarked on a systematic effort to delegitimize the other – Hariri by challenging Hezbollah’s arms, Hezbollah by accusing March 14 of siding with Israel during the summer 2006 war. However, neither side will eliminate the other. Hezbollah will not succeed in imposing its writ on Lebanon, and March 14 is living under an illusion if it imagines that the weapons quarrel, or even an indictment issued by the special tribunal naming Hezbollah members, will mean the party’s downfall.

Beyond the rhetoric, Hariri and Nasrallah must set up a group whose role would be to act as a regular channel between the two leaders, its main purpose to identify and neutralize looming sectarian flashpoints. This team could include both men’s closest advisers, but the most important thing is that it remain secret and continue to meet regardless of the public stances taken by the leaders. Over and above this, Hariri and Nasrallah should urge Michel Sleiman to resume the national dialogue sessions, the principal item of discussion being the shielding of Lebanon from regional tremors. While that forum may become a futile talk shop, it would also bring in all communal leaders and reassure the Lebanese that conciliatory exchanges are always possible. This would help reduce the pressures in the street.

Of course, such an approach would only scratch the surface in absorbing the force of sectarian strains. But Lebanon’s leaders, for once, must transcend their narrow, parochial calculations and accept that the country invariably distils what happens in the Middle East, and often the very worst of what happens in the Middle East. Whichever instrument or medium they adopt, Hariri and Nasrallah must stay in contact, even through the toughest of times.

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