Saturday, October 1, 2011

Their own worst enemy

It is unfortunate that at a moment when the head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, has made one of the better public presentations in recent years, his allies have come across as increasingly irrelevant. The opposition is adrift, a view shared by many inside the house.

March 14 parties met this week at Saad Hariri’s residence to “coordinate their stances.” They should have considered defining a clearer national role for themselves, because the coalition seems gripped by confusion. Hariri has been abroad for months, an affront to those who elected him. His money problems are genuine and have not yet been resolved, taking a toll on his patronage network and political authority. The former prime minister is not out yet, however if his occultation lasts much longer, his leadership will melt.

Many sympathizers wonder what Hariri actually stands for. Who did they mobilize to elect in the 2009 elections? No answer has come from the Future Movement, which has morphed into something of an annoying jack-in-the-box—popping its head up episodically to deliver some statement or barb against Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

In the March 14 firmament these days, Geagea is an exception. His speech on Saturday was, in its own right, highly significant in the context of current Maronite history. Here was the leader of an organization once described as “isolationist” during Lebanon’s war years, saying that the salvation of Christians lies in their affirmation in the Middle East and the spread of freedom. This was, in part, a response to the foolishness of Patriarch Bechara al-Rai, who has sought protection for his community under the wing of the depraved rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But it was also more than that: an alternative framework for how Arab Christians all over might interpret the momentous transformations in their political environment, and an enlightened one at that.

One nuisance the Future Movement has faced is that it has based much of its strategy in the past months on bolstering the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The expectation among the Hariri camp and its allies was that Mikati would formally break Beirut’s ties with the institution, at the insistence of Hezbollah. In fact the prime minister has not done so. The matter of Lebanese funding has yet to be finalized, but Mikati is in favor of payment, meaning that he appears willing to fight for his money. To the dismay of March 14, the prime minister has neutralized their main argument against him—and he even garnered international legitimacy on his trip to New York.

But that’s not all. As important as the tribunal is, most Lebanese have other priorities. With the economy in a dark patch and many people worried, rightly so, about the country’s future finances, for March 14 to give inordinate weight to the Special Tribunal is awkward. Whether the population likes the government or not, or embraces Mikati or not, it will always look toward the state to defend the much broader range of concerns that it has. Unless March 14 can offer an alternative governance project of its own, one as comprehensive as the government’s, it will come across as a single-issue interest group.

March 14 has been equally insubstantial on the question of Hezbollah’s weapons. These weapons are at the heart of the political crisis in Lebanon today. As parliamentarian Sami Gemayel astutely pointed out in a NOW Lebanon interview this week, until the issue is settled, it will impede national dialogue over reform. “If there are to be negotiations about developing institutions, you’d be sitting at the same table as someone who has an arsenal,” Gemayel said.

But what has the opposition done to advance a serious discussion of weapons? Saad Hariri made Hezbollah’s disarmament a cornerstone of his address at the March 14 rally this year. However, he did so in the most inflexible of ways, by throwing it down as a gauntlet. The former prime minister did not integrate discussion of the weapons into a broader political package, one that might involve a quid pro quo that eventually appeals to the Shia community. The demand was there to be accepted or rejected. Hezbollah—no surprise—rejected it.

Since then, Hezbollah has found a very useful friend in Bechara al-Rai, who gave the party until the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict to hold on to its guns. The blank check issued by the patriarch further destabilized March 14, while doing something else: It precipitated a quarrel between the opposition and Rai, who has evidently decided to transform himself into a sandbag for the parliamentary majority, behind which Hezbollah can now comfortably shelter itself.

An opposition parliamentarian put it succinctly to me: “March 14’s trouble is that it doesn’t know whether it is a loyal opposition or a coalition that must block what it has described as a Hezbollah coup.” Quite true. March 14 has principally behaved in the second way, which is why its interventions have tended to be shrill and disruptive, losing it the esteem that constructive oppositions generally enjoy.

You have to wonder if Najib Mikati didn’t get lucky when he stood against Hariri for the post of prime minister. Yes, he did join in a Syrian- and Hezbollah-led constitutional coup of sorts, and yes, Saad Hariri was always the Sunnis’ first choice. But since then March 14 has done virtually nothing to make us regret its absence in government. And this is fortifying Mikati day after day.

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