Friday, May 13, 2011

March 14’s regrettable minimalism

It has been a debilitating transition since Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government fell months ago. One reason is that the majority has proven utterly incompetent in forming a new government. The rapaciousness of some of its members has been disgraceful, exposing the hollowness of the majority’s alleged reformist agenda.

However, direct your criticism at March 14 as well, and that includes Saad Hariri as caretaker prime minister. Hariri is still smarting, justifiably, over the way he was ousted from power. Hezbollah barred the prime minister’s return to office in favor of Najib Mikati, against the wishes of most Sunnis. And then, with Syrian assistance, it flipped Walid Jumblatt, forming a new majority. Since then, Mikati has been bogged down in a grinding government-formation process, and Hariri has had no incentive to assist the majority out of its morass.

But it’s also fair to say that, both in form and content, March 14 has not played the interim period well. The coalition has missed a rare opportunity to bolster its credibility at the expense of its rivals, and more important, to guarantee the continuity of proper governance.

First, the form. In recent weeks, Hariri seems to have disappeared from the political landscape. At a time of political anxiety in the country and rising economic woes, this is no time for the caretaker prime minister to lie low. One can interpret the caretaker role in a minimal or in a maximal way. Hariri has tended to favor the former, clearing out of the prime minister’s office too soon after Najib Mikati was appointed. This created the semblance of a vacuum at the head of the executive, when Hariri could have used the long interregnum to reassert his bona fides as the right person for the job.

Hariri’s absence also heightened a sense that he has put his personal ill feeling above the interests of the state. Many Lebanese believe the caretaker prime minister is still boiling over his sense of betrayal by Mikati, but that it’s not up to the country to pay the price for that sentiment. The accusation may be unmerited, but it does carry great negative weight at a moment when Hariri and March 14, who have portrayed themselves as the paramount defenders of the project of a sovereign state, cannot afford to be perceived as capricious.

Then there is content. Around the time of the February 14 commemoration of Rafik Hariri’s assassination, Hariri and his allies began raising the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons. The caretaker prime minister made several strong statements declaring that the party’s arms had become a major source of national discord. Who can deny they are? However, the way the matter was formulated allowed no room for flexibility. Nothing was put on the table; no quid pro quos were offered. Hezbollah was simply told that it must disarm, with the objective not presented as part of a broader strategy whereby it could become the object of constructive negotiations in the future.

Just demanding that Hezbollah surrender its weapons will lead nowhere. All it will do, in fact, is further strengthen the party among Shia, who will construe calls for disarmament as an effort to marginalize the community. What March 14 must do is integrate that demand into a larger proposal that aims to give Shia more political power in exchange for disarming, but in the context of the state and the Taif reform process. Because March 14 has failed to do so, Hariri’s denunciation of Hezbollah’s weapons has become merely a slogan.

Worse, it has become a slogan that has drifted under the radar, with no one in March 14 raising the subject anymore. This has debased the seriousness of the weapons question, making the public assume that Hariri broached it only as a tactical ploy in his standoff with Mikati.

And then there is the state of affairs in Syria. Wherever one stands on Syrian developments, the caretaker government has taken almost no measures to shield Lebanon from the tremors next door. The blame can be spread around, of course; after all, the government is purportedly one of national unity. However as prime minister, Saad Hariri should take the lead. Lebanon is functioning today as if it were somehow isolated from Syria. Yet the situation there can break down very quickly. We need a government in Beirut that has contingency plans in the event Syrian instability decisively shifts. As things stand, Lebanon is complacently assuming that the Assad regime will crush the protests and maintain an equilibrium in Damascus.

Last February 14, the leaders of the March 14 coalition apologized to their followers. They had made mistakes, they admitted, by taking decisions that jarred with the better instincts of their base. Yet since the government was brought down, the former majority has not done enough to elucidate why it is better than Hezbollah and Michel Aoun. The new majority has been stumbling terribly, but March 14 has exploited this not a bit. Ready your storerooms for fresh apologies.

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