Thursday, June 16, 2011

March 14 may regret boycotting Mikati

There is no doubt that President Bashar Assad’s regime played an essential role in accelerating the formation of the Lebanese government.

Only a Syrian nod could have compelled President Michel Sleiman to approve a Cabinet lineup that will thoroughly marginalize him, and could have made Speaker Nabih Berri surrender a Shiite seat to the Sunni community.

Despite this, we have to wonder whether March 14 did well not to participate in the new team.

From the moment that Saad Hariri’s government was brought down last January, the March 14 parties took an uncompromising position on Najib Mikati, the prime minister designate. Hariri, justifiably, felt betrayed by Mikati and there was much talk of a “coup.” Syria, Hezbollah and their allies did stage a coup, but a constitutional coup within the confines of state institutions.

Mikati, whether by persuasion or compulsion, won over a majority of parliamentarians, which should have been a lesson to March 14: If institutions could be used against the coalition, March 14 could use institutions in its own favor. When you denounce a coup, your duty is to obstruct it.

Instead, the order came down that March 14 was to stand aside and isolate Mikati. There were exceptions. The former prime minister, Fouad Siniora, kept a low-key line open. The former president, Amin Gemayel, tried to find common ground with the prime minister designate.

However, to distance himself from the endeavor, Hariri flew to France. March 14 made unrealistic demands on Mikati, asking him to clarify in writing his position on Hezbollah’s arms and on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. When he refused, this was portrayed as a lack of seriousness about integrating March 14 into the government.

Was that true? Had March 14 declared from the outset that it would participate in the government on condition that it be granted veto power, things might have been different. The veto provision had earlier been respected for March 8 and the Aounists, and March 14’s share in Parliament justified it.

Mikati would have resisted at first, but as his efforts to put together a government floundered, he might have reassessed in order to expand his margin of maneuver, accepting the conditions set by March 14. But had he persisted in his refusal, that would only have weakened him further, confirming that he was beholden to Hezbollah and Syria, damaging him among Sunnis.

Assume that March 14 did the right thing at the time. Did it do the right thing in not reconsidering its attitude once the situation in Syria began unraveling? Suddenly, the issue was no longer whether Najib Mikati would gain legitimacy if March 14 took part in his government.

It was no longer whether Hezbollah had staged a coup, since the signs, after weeks of deadlock over the Cabinet, were that the momentum of such a coup had been slowed by uncertainty in Syria. The issue was whether March 14 would be in the government or out at a critical juncture in Lebanon’s history, with the Assad regime facing an existential challenge. March 14 did not even debate the question.

So where are we today? Instead of adapting to developments in the region, March 14 is still locked into a very parochial reading of the political situation. It has criticized the government for being a Syrian creation, bolstered by Hezbollah.

Undeniably it is. No less true is that Damascus, through this government, intends to enlist Lebanon in the Syrian confrontation with the international community. The country is in for a bumpy ride in the months ahead, which will impact on the economy and on financial confidence in negative ways.

March 14 may welcome such circumstances for discrediting the Mikati government. However, this is short-sighted. The state, whose promotion March 14 has claimed as its principal concern, benefits not at all when the welfare of the Lebanese becomes a weapon in domestic disputes.

Nor is it obvious what national project March 14 offers in contrast to that of the current majority. During the months of stalemate the March 14 leadership did little to exploit the political bankruptcy on the other side, whereby alleged reformers haggled like fishwives over their share of ministers and lucrative portfolios.

The conventional wisdom is that the Mikati government is not long for this world; March 14 spokespersons have linked its longevity to that of the Assads in Syria. That may be true, but the Assads could linger for some time.

The view displays great passivity on the part of the former majority, giving a wide berth to Hezbollah and the Aounists to dismantle what March 14 spent years patiently building up. Remarkably, at the very moment when Syria’s allies and sympathizers appear most vulnerable, March 14 has managed to hand the reins of government over to them.

As the Lebanese look ahead, what they see is worrisome. On the one side a government bound to increase Lebanon’s misery, with a core of revanchist Aounists and an armed organization whose overriding preoccupation is to turn the country into a sandbag to protect its weapons and preserve its autonomy.

And on the other side, a coalition without a persuasive vision for a sovereign Lebanese state, whose paramount figure has been absent for weeks (reportedly because of death threats), which is presently wagering on the failure of the new government, regardless of how the Lebanese might suffer from this.

In this context, a government of national unity, no matter how mediocre, would have been better in carrying Lebanon through this period of transformation in Syria, and in managing the aftermath. We missed that opportunity and now we have a government that is infinitely worse, one that may not vanish as soon as we think.

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