Thursday, July 28, 2011

Pathos in Beirut, and new directions

Pathos has become standard fare in Beirut lately. There was something pathetic in the bearing of Prime Minister Najib Mikati during his recent interview with CNN’s Richard Quest. And no less pathetic have been the assurances of March 14 figures that Saad Hariri will return to Beirut during the month of Ramadan.

With Mikati the pathos came in the prime minister’s unpersuasive effort to put a brave face on a bad situation. He told Quest that the four individuals indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon were being actively sought by his government, even as the dubious reporter reminded him that Hezbollah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, had vowed never to surrender the men. Mikati, too smart to engage in self-delusion, instead spread a pitiful illusion.

As for March 14, there was something just as wretched in the statements heralding Hariri’s homecoming. The former prime minister’s bloc and allies have been embarrassed by their leader’s disappearance and the contradictory explanations for this. Now Hariri is coming back and a zephyr of hope has kicked up in the coalition’s ranks, as no more explanations have to be offered.

Lebanon is being damaged by fragmentation in the political game. Nasrallah is flying the banner of defending our offshore gas fields – in search of new relevance for a party that has lost its meaning beyond being the armed sentinel of the Shiite sect, and that may soon be deprived of a valuable Syrian ally; Mikati is engaged in an elaborate act that all is dandy in Lebanon, to reverse waning confidence in stability; March 14 is all sound and fury, but signifying nothing as it fails to define an alternative to the vague program on the other side.

In this otherwise dispiriting context, there may yet be interesting things to watch for that will shape Lebanon’s political future. One, is whether the notion of a government of “one color” can provide a model of sorts, or alternatively will turn into a practice best avoided. Another, is whether such a “one-color” government will help spawn in positive ways a responsible opposition.

As much as a national-unity government is preferable given our present political predicament, because Lebanon needs a forum for dialogue in volatile times, that choice has not been the norm in modern Lebanon. One must differentiate between a representative government and a national-unity government: the first brings in a range of political forces who agree on the basics of policy, but does not necessarily integrate all major forces in the way that a national-unity government does. Lebanon has frequently had representative governments that were not national-unity governments.

It is too early to judge how the Mikati government will perform. However, the signs are not heartening when the prime minister finds himself on a different wavelength than Hassan Nasrallah, his far more powerful confederate. Oddly, this may not end up mattering much. Whatever the outcome for the government, success or failure, it may help bolster the view that a government of compatible political partners is better than a national-unity government.

Here’s why. If the Mikati government succeeds, then many Lebanese will, of course, applaud the experiment, seeing little to condemn in a politically compatible governing team. Conversely, if the government fails, then this is likely to discredit Mikati and those around him in their political capacity, but not at all the principle of a like-minded government. In other words, disappointment with the current ministers and their sponsors could create a backlash leading to the establishment of a substitute Cabinet of March 14 and its comrades.

Many Lebanese are tempted to favor compatible governments over national-unity governments. But that can only work if partisanship is kept in check and there is broad agreement over Lebanon’s social contract. When government actions and political and security appointments serve mainly to consolidate a politician’s or party’s interests at the expense of the majority, inside or outside government, then the advantages of compatibility break down.

And what of the opposition? March 14 has disappointed on a host of questions since Mikati took office. Tactically, the coalition has sought to highlight the flaws of the government, and the prime minister in particular. But it has been wishy-washy on sensitive issues, from addressing declining economic conditions, where the responsible position requires backing Mikati, to taking a stance on the Syrian situation, to providing a convincing counter-offer to the majority’s tendentious vision for a national dialogue. Demanding that Hezbollah’s weapons be included in a dialogue is natural, but this will not serve as the basis of serious discussion until March 14 corners the party by presenting a detailed project for disarmament that incorporates a political quid pro quo.

If we were to predict the popularity of March 14 in an election, what might we discover? Looking through a narrow but useful prism, if elections were held today in the different districts of Mount Lebanon, which accounts for a hefty number of parliamentarians, I would wager heavily that Michel Aoun would again win a lion’s share of seats. That’s not because the general is more popular than in 2009, but because his adversaries have lost ground. It was no coincidence that Michel Murr, an astute electoral operator, voted confidence in the Mikati government after his list’s disastrous results in the Metn two years ago. Expect him to negotiate with Aoun in 2013.

This should be a cautionary tale for March 14. A government of one color imposes obligations on an opposition. Even if the public has doubts about those in authority, that doesn’t mean it will side with their critics. Until now the opposition has appeared strident, devoid of ideas, and focused on provoking Mikati’s collapse. That’s not a serious strategy and it’s not working. It makes Mikati look good when his difficulties should expose how feeble the prime minister really is.

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