Friday, April 8, 2011

The shadow of April 13

Next week Lebanon will commemorate, doubtless in vapors of indifference, the 36th anniversary of the start of its civil war. Indifference is not necessarily a bad thing, but given the polarization in the country today, particularly between the Sunni and Shia communities, a look back is necessary.

In 1975 Lebanon did not seem like a country on the verge of a 15-year conflict. There were those who saw through the glitz of the era, the nights at the Caves du Roy and the imperishable cliché that one could swim in the sea and ski on the same day. Toufiq Youssef Awwad’s novel Tawaheen Beirut, like Ziad al-Rahbani’s brilliant, caustic plays, offered literary glimpses into the often impossible social contradictions the Lebanese had to juggle. Political life was, like today, deadlocked, the Lebanese divided over the role of the state, their social contract and the armed Palestinian groups in their midst.

The situation appears to be different today, but the contradictions are still there. There is still no consensus over a Lebanese social contract, still no broad accord when it comes to the state, and still a highly volatile quarrel over weapons not under the authority of the state, in this case those of Hezbollah. And you can still ski and swim on the same day.

But one thing we do have that we didn’t three-and-a-half decades ago is a memory of our civil war. Back then, the Lebanese perhaps still recalled the 1958 conflict, but what a mild walk in the park this was compared to the butchery between 1975 and 1990. And while Lebanon moved perilously close to the precipice in the six years since the Syrian army withdrew from the country, it never went over the edge. Even Hezbollah’s assault on western Beirut and the Aley district in May 2008 was designed to achieve swift, blunt political success, not initiate a full-scale confrontation, though the party played with fire.

How might the memory of war help us today? The priority for the political class in the foreseeable future, on all sides of the Lebanese divide, is to avert a conflict between Sunnis and Shia and create a framework for serious dialogue between the two communities. This may sound terribly trite, and it is illusory today to expect that the factions will find substantial common ground. The projects advanced by the March 14 coalition and by Hezbollah are largely incompatible, at least in the forms expressed by representatives on both sides.

Then there is the fact that dialogue is sometimes only useful in creating an impression of amity, until the clashes break out. That is why something a bit more serious must be attempted. While the political class may resurrect the national dialogue sessions, as cover for a broader exchange of ideas between the politicians, Saad Hariri and Hassan Nasrallah must establish their own mechanism to remain in regular contact, secretly, whatever their public stances and regardless of the personal animus they have for each other. Why secret? To shield such contacts from political one-upmanship on either side.

It is doubtless necessary for Nasrallah to climb down from his high perch, one from where he believes that he can intimidate his political adversaries to change their views on a host of crucial national issues, ranging from their support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to their disapproval of Hezbollah’s weapons. But it is also vital that Hariri take more steps of his own, for example reestablishing a relationship with Nabih Berri. From Hariri’s perspective, the parliament speaker has a lot going against him. Yet March 14 twice elected him to his post after the Independence Intifada of 2005, even though Berri had done everything to undermine the then-parliamentary majority.

Above all, Lebanon needs a government. That March 14 has chosen to remain in the opposition is constitutionally legitimate. However, at this stage, with so much uncertainty in the country and in the Arab world, it really makes more sense for it to join the government, on condition that it receive veto power. The former majority would thus place itself in a position to defend its stakes, including the Special Tribunal, and build useful coalitions with President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and even Walid Jumblatt on myriad issues. None of the three relishes the thought of seeing the government turned into a battering ram for Hezbollah and Michel Aoun.

Mikati may well agree to grant March 14 veto power, as it would allow him, finally, to form a governing team. More importantly, a new government would allow for politics within the confines of national institutions. Better in the cabinet than in the streets.

As Michel Chiha, an essential ideologue of the Lebanese system, wrote in 1936 that Lebanon’s diversities can only be brought nearer to one another “by allowing them to live politically together, by allowing them to make laws together in an Assembly and to control the implementation of these laws.” The government is one such assembly, but there are, potentially, many others. As the April 13 anniversary looms, let’s remember that Lebanon is condemned to manage its differences in consensual ways; otherwise the shadow of war will never be far enough away.

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