Friday, April 20, 2012

Berri Berri

There is the political ally of Syria, Hezbollah and Michel Aoun, who closed down parliament for 18 months, and whose gunmen disgraced the streets of western Beirut in May 2008. And then there is the veteran politician who is preparing for the possible fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, who chafes at Hezbollah’s domination of the Shia community, and who detests Aoun—not least for having humiliated him by winning against Berri in Jezzine during the last elections.

This is also the man who was the impresario of the parliamentary mud fest that took place this past week. As usual, he cajoled, browbeat, cut off and encouraged this parliamentarian or that, often in ways designed to advance the speaker’s own political agenda.

Berri has been a major irritant to March 14 and for years was in the vanguard of the March 8-Aounist strategy of obstructionism, thanks to his position. But the speaker is both vulnerable and indispensable today, and the arch maneuverer is looking to reinvent himself.

He is vulnerable because his Syrian sponsors are facing an existential crisis, even though they never much cared for Berri and allegedly threatened him some months ago to ensure that he stayed in line. And Berri is indispensible, therefore influential, because, unlike Hezbollah, he can reposition himself as the “centrist” Shia in any post-Assad future. He could thus preserve his position while also mediating between the Sunni political leadership and Hezbollah.

A commonly heard criticism of the Future Movement is that it has played Berri badly. There is some truth here. Rather than exploit the speaker’s desire to expand his options within his community and beyond the parliamentary majority, Saad Hariri’s men have had a tendency to embarrass Berri when possible. Then again, that tactic has sometimes made the speaker more desirous to please, so it has had some benefit. However, a more subtle strategy is required, because Berri may play a decisive role in next year’s elections.

If there is any likelihood that Berri will take a different tack than Hezbollah, the elections will provide it. That’s not to say that the speaker will break with the party. In many electoral districts he has a strong interest in forming joint lists with Hezbollah. However, there are places where Berri might go his own way. That’s probably true, again, in Jezzine, but also Jbeil, where he controls Shia votes; perhaps the Metn, where a small Shia electorate is present; and most intriguingly Baabda, where the speaker could potentially play Hezbollah and Aoun off against March 14 and Walid Jumblatt.

Would Hezbollah afford Berri that latitude? Much will depend on what happens in Syria. If the Assad regime imposes that the speaker march in lockstep with Hezbollah and Aoun, there will be little that he can do to challenge the decision. But if not, Berri has no incentive to return to being an appendage of Hezbollah, and the party may steer clear of a confrontation with the speaker to avoid splits within Shia ranks. The reality is that Berri only has an ability to play on the margins in most electoral districts. A safe tactic would be to enter into arrangements that potentially adversely affect Aounist candidates and certain other Hezbollah allies, but not Hezbollah candidates.

The ultimate objective of Berri is to remain speaker after 2013. That may not be too difficult. It’s not obvious who could challenge him. A Hezbollah official would be too divisive, while March 14 has few Shia as it is—and none with legitimacy in the eyes of a majority in their community. However, this time around Berri would prefer that his speakership not be a bone tossed his way by Hezbollah. That’s why he will be keen to bring a multi-sectarian bloc back to parliament, something Aoun denied him in 2009. This will affect Berri’s electoral decisions in mixed sectarian districts.

March 14 should take all these factors into consideration as it plans for elections next year. It makes no sense to alienate Berri, even if it makes even less sense to concede too much to the speaker. One person who has avoided a head-on clash with Berri is Samir Geagea. The calculations may cut both ways. When neither Aoun nor Hezbollah called the Lebanese Forces leader to congratulate him for surviving an assassination attempt, Berri did. He also reportedly saw to it last year that Antoine Zahra, the Lebanese Forces parliamentarian from Batroun, would remain in the Parliament Bureau, despite behind-the-scenes efforts to remove him.

Geagea realizes that Berri’s support might come in handy at voting time. So, too, does Walid Jumblatt, who has maintained open channels to his wartime comrade through fair weather and foul. Every day new cracks are appearing in the parliamentary majority. If dealing more shrewdly with Nabih Berri can help widen them, then why not do so? The speaker asks for nothing more.

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