Friday, April 1, 2011

Stabilization time for Lebanon

For a man who was supposed to shield the Maronite Church from the tremors of politics, Patriarch Bishara al-Rai has launched himself into the political pit feet first and head forward. After offering a ringing endorsement of Minister Ziad Baroud last weekend, Rai declared on Wednesday that a government of “one color” was undesirable.

The patriarch will have gotten significant assistance from Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian president’s speech on Wednesday was seen by most people as profoundly disappointing; but worse, it was viewed by many Syrians as an insult. This can only complicate the political situation in Syria, which means the Assad regime may be loath to sanction a government in Beirut that creates more headaches for Damascus.

A headache is precisely what the Syrian president may face by endorsing a one-sided government under the influence of Hezbollah. Assad does not want to alienate the Sunni-dominated states of the Gulf, whose leaders this week called to express support for his regime. But he had already gotten a warning last Friday, when Sheikh Yusif al-Qaradawi, in his Friday sermon from Doha, welcomed the fact that “the train of revolution” had reached Syria. For Assad, this was a troubling reminder that his margin of maneuver in dealing with Syria’s Sunni community, and by extension Lebanon’s, is limited.

It is doubtful that the protests in Syria will die down in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the contrary is more probable. In that context, Rai’s advice is sound. It would be a grave mistake for the prime minister-elect, Najib Mikati, to go through with establishing a government allowing Hezbollah and Michel Aoun to impose agendas that might only increase tension in Lebanon. Until now Mikati has refused to do so, and in this he has had the backing of President Michel Sleiman, but also, more furtively, of Walid Jumblatt.

This week Jumblatt spoke for the first time in months with Saad Hariri, and has called for a resumption of the national dialogue. The Druze leader is worried about events in Syria and their repercussions for Lebanon. He is also annoyed with Michel Aoun’s rapacious cabinet demands. Jumblatt has made it clear to his allies that he is the one responsible for taking the parliamentary majority away from March 14, and therefore will not consent to being marginal in the government.

Almost everyone appears to be quietly but firmly abandoning the notion of a government led by Hezbollah and the Aounists. According to Al-Jumhouria on Thursday, the Qatari government has circulated ideas, allegedly with Syrian knowledge, to refloat the present Hariri government. The idea would be to revive the previous ministerial statement approving Hezbollah’s weapons, in exchange for a reaffirmation of Lebanon’s commitment to United Nations resolutions. This would shelve Hezbollah’s plan to use the “false witnesses” controversy to discredit the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Hariri is not soon likely to accept such a proposal, however there is a definite need to go along with the Qataris’ rationale: Namely, to find a formula to stabilize the Lebanese political scene at a moment when developments in Syria may exacerbate Lebanese sectarian differences. Not many in March 14 are willing to listen to Jumblatt these days, but he’s correct in that a vacuum in Beirut at such a sensitive moment next door is in the interest of none of the Lebanese parties.

Complicating matters is Michel Aoun’s health. He reportedly suffered an ischemic incident this week, most commonly caused by a blood clot in the brain. Reportedly, the attack was transient, which means that Aoun may emerge with little or no lasting negative consequences. However, many will be watching to see whether this situation affects the political calculations of the poles within the Aounist movement, particularly those family members competing for Aoun’s legacy.

At the least, Aoun’s health crisis, like his political intransigence in negotiating cabinet shares, makes it increasingly certain that we have entered a new phase in the months-long political face-off in Lebanon. The Special Tribunal is no longer the main preoccupation of the hour. Hezbollah’s strategy toward the so-called false witnesses has hit up against numerous obstacles, above all the fact that Sunni-Shia relations will suffer if Lebanon severs ties with the tribunal.

Perhaps Hezbollah can take some solace in the fact that the tribunal’s prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, recently filed what was described as an expanded draft indictment. For some foreign legal experts, this was very possibly a sign that his initial draft was deficient.

Mikati cannot fashion a government of national unity, but he should think seriously of a government of national consensus. The new cabinet should include competent independents, approved by the major political factions. Call them whatever you want, but the prime objective of this team should be to do what the Mikati government of 2005 did: manage affairs impartially until parliamentary elections, while shielding Lebanon from the convulsions of the Middle East.

The prime minister-elect should begin by bluntly announcing that the “government of one color” project is dead. Hezbollah and Aoun might resist, but it’s time for Mikati to show nerve. Lebanon needs someone to lead, and Mikati stood against Hariri and a majority of Sunnis in saying that he could do so. With events in Syria as they are, the prime minister-elect should downgrade his ambitions and manage a delicate Lebanese transition. We shouldn’t expect more for now.

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