Thursday, November 24, 2011

Amid Lebanese chaos, a chance for reform

There are several accounts of Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s life, most made available by the Hezbollah leader himself over the years to various publications. Taken together, they serve as a terse official biography. In one of these, we learn that even as a boy, Nasrallah was religious and devoted to Imam Musa Sadr. When other boys went to the beach, Nasrallah rode to the old downtown area of Beirut, from his home in Karantina, to buy religious books.

How instructive it is to picture the young Hasan joining the teeming crowds around Martyrs Square, a movable surrender to the senses and to raucous pluralism, under the blistering Mediterranean sun grilling his carefree comrades not so very far away, to pick up his Koranic texts. But it would be a mistake merely to view this as a tale of youthful earnestness, or humorlessness. Rather, it tells us much, if the story is true – and more so if it isn’t – about Nasrallah’s detachment from the essential features making Lebanon what it is.

With this as a backdrop, we can ask whether Lebanon today is at the threshold of an opportunity to redefine its social contract and engage in political reform. Do events in Syria, and the probability that President Bashar Assad’s regime will fall, create an opening for more balanced negotiations between Lebanese religious communities, particularly Sunnis and Shiites, on reapportioning political power?

Much, of course, will depend on how Assad goes. If Syria dissolves into civil war, then the impact on Lebanon could be dire. Polarization would increase, with the distinct possibility of violence. However, the nightmare scenario is also relatively doubtful today, given the consensus in the Arab world and Turkey to contain the Syrian situation, precisely to avoid harming neighboring countries.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, an ideal outcome. Assad departs in such a way that Syrians can navigate a fairly smooth transition. Whatever this transition, in Lebanon the dynamics are likely to be the following: Hezbollah, which remains militarily powerful, will have nonetheless lost a major ally, and more importantly the strategic depth the party enjoyed in the event of a war against Israel. Faced with the reality that it can no longer combat Israel against the will of a majority of its countrymen, Hezbollah’s fears will increase along with those of the Shiite community. Perhaps this will make Shiites more amenable to accepting Hezbollah’s disarmament in exchange for greater Shiite political representation in a restructured political system.

As Hezbollah’s expectations drop, the end of the Assad regime will push Sunni expectations up to stratospheric heights. A successor leadership in Syria is bound to be sympathetic to Lebanon’s Sunnis and hostile to Hezbollah. The sectarian repercussions of this newfound confidence will certainly mean, among other things, that Lebanese Sunnis will no longer accept intimidation by Hezbollah. A rational Hezbollah, grasping these new circumstances, will have no choice but to adapt accordingly by searching for a compromise, otherwise it may have to prepare its followers for civil war.

That’s one theory, at least. Yet so much in this outline is also an ingredient for conflict, that it may seem illusory to describe what is happening as a window of opportunity. Hezbollah and Shiite anxiety, coupled with the community’s military superiority, is hardly liable to prompt Hezbollah to roll over and sue for peace. Sunni self-assurance might easily transform itself into ruinous hubris, allowing extremists to take the lead in “the battle against the Shiites.” Impulses on both sides will have to be carefully tempered, even if a Shiite sense of loss and a Sunni sense of gain, if properly exploited, is exactly what is required to get a dialogue on reform started.

But is Nasrallah someone inherently open to such a jump? The Hezbollah leader has often affirmed his antagonism toward the Lebanese sectarian system, even as he has presided over the most sectarian of parties. In truth, Nasrallah has manipulated Shiite resentment of a political and social order that was not good to Shiites in the past, in order to reinforce Hezbollah’s influence and discredit any talk of political reform. The party knows that such reform, if reached consensually, would lead to its demise as a military force.

Yet Nasrallah is not alone. Unless a moderate leadership can reassert its authority over the Sunni community, and soon, there remains a possibility that Sunnis may succumb to those least willing to come to terms with the Shiites. In this context the absence of Saad Hariri and the uncertainty surrounding the Future Movement has left the field open for less pragmatic figures, even as Hariri himself seems in no mood these days to concede much to Hezbollah. This situation in the Sunni community may mean that the initiative slips to those who, like Nasrallah, would have bought only religious books had they waded into the miscellany of Martyrs Square; or it may bolster secular populists; or both.

Left unmentioned here are the Christians, particularly the Maronites, who would have to relinquish the most in an overhaul of the political system – above all the 50-50 ratio of Christians to Muslims in parliament. Ultimately, Christians too will have to avert the pitfall of excessive fear by embracing reform under the rubric of Taif, or else they may one day see political change imposed on them by their Muslim partners. However, given the despondency today among Christians and their more influential political and religious leaders, such prescience does not seem to be in the cards.

The imbalance in Lebanon’s political system, the presence of an armed, semi-autonomous party and community prevailing over all others, has discouraged discussion of reform. The reality is that Sunnis won’t bargain over their future with a Hezbollah holding the guns. That won’t hold if Bashar Assad is ousted. What Lebanon would then need is leaders who can control the wild ambitions or apprehensions ensuing from so enviable a moment.

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