Sunday, May 27, 2012

Lebanon’s perilous street politics

Consider Shadi Mawlawi, Sheikh Ahmad Assir, the combatants in Bab al-Tabbaneh, Jabal Mohsen and Tariq al-Jadideh, and the angry youths in Beirut’s southern suburbs who burned tires on Tuesday to protest against the abduction of Shia religious pilgrims in Syria. Lebanon is succumbing to populist impulses and their impresarios, which cannot represent a good development for the future.

Lebanon’s political class is frequently, and quite reasonably, maligned. However, the street is infinitely worse. It was a clearly concerned Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah who took to the airwaves Tuesday evening urging young Shia to calm down after the news of the pilgrims’ fate broke. What Nasrallah sought to avoid at all cost was an outbreak of violence between Shia and Sunnis.

To a great extent, Hezbollah has only itself to blame. The arrest of Mawlawi by the General Security directorate was a reckless, suspicious operation that was certain to lead to a heightening of sectarian animosities. The party, and behind it the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, manipulated events in Tripoli to show that the city is a Salafist stronghold—in that way confirming Assad’s contention that he is fighting a coalition of armed jihadists.

Like many traps, it threatened to backfire when two Sunni clerics were killed in Akkar and fighting spread to Beirut. A Sunni-Shia conflict is not something Hezbollah desires, not when its strategic objective is to use legislative elections next year to gain control of parliament, then the presidency, then the broader apparatus of the state. This mad scheme cannot conceivably work, even less so when the Sunni community feels invigorated by the failure of the Assad regime to prevail in Syria. Yet Hezbollah, in order to survive in a post-Assad Middle East, needs to anchor itself somewhere while simultaneously avoiding suicide in a new Lebanese civil war.

That is where the street comes in. No less than Nasrallah, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri sensed the potential dangers on Tuesday when he felicitously issued a statement calling for the release of the Shia pilgrims. This should be taken further. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has called for a resumption of dialogue between the Lebanese parties. While March 14 sources spun this into censure of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government, it actually meant rather more than that, creating an opening that must be exploited.

King Abdullah is right about one thing: Lebanon’s leaders urgently need to engage in dialogue. For now the agenda must focus on achievable ambitions, above all avoiding Lebanon being dragged into the Syrian conflict. Syria has reportedly sought to pressure Mikati into taking a more forceful stance against the Syrian opposition. But such a step would only break the country apart and push the Lebanese toward the very predicament that Hezbollah, and everybody else, seeks to avert, namely sectarian civil war.

Hezbollah’s views on the pressure against Mikati seem ambiguous, but if the party fears Lebanon’s breakup then it must welcome a dialogue. Yes, it might have to accept Mikati’s efforts to defend Lebanese non-alignment, or split personality, over the Syrian crisis. On the other hand this would provide valuable advantages down the road, because Hezbollah’s self-preservation would necessarily require that the party improve relations between Shia and the other Lebanese communities, above all the Sunni community.

And what would be in it for the Sunnis? Justifiably, Hezbollah’s arms remain a bone of contention for many Lebanese, and that will not soon change. However, the more urgent priority today is to impede a slide toward the sectarian abyss. As for the longer term, if Assad falls, as he will, the Sunni leadership can then engage in a conversation with Hezbollah from a position of strength over those issues that it considers essential—weapons above all. But that should not prevent a dialogue today. Nor should it prevent March 14 from mobilizing to challenge Hezbollah politically when the elections come.

As King Abdullah surely knows, for an inter-Lebanese dialogue to make sense, Saad Hariri must be intimately involved in it. The former prime minister cannot participate by proxy, especially as there is a worrisome drift of the initiative in the Sunni community toward the extremes. The extremists remain a minority, but as we saw in Tripoli last week, in periods like these they can impose their will.

After initial confusion, Future politicians read the dangers of the Mawlawi arrest relatively well, and did so again after the shooting of the two sheikhs in Akkar. However, their allies on the ground took a different tack. When Khaled Daher of the Jamaa Islamiyya—who worried that he might be overwhelmed from his right—accused elements in the army of deliberately killing the clerics, this crossed a red line that disturbed many people, not least Future’s Christian ally Sami Gemayel.

The army is a house of myriad murky corners, but it is the only national institution that stands between a semblance of peace and a security void. There are also substantial numbers of Sunnis in the ranks, so it makes no sense to undermine the military in the eyes of the community. Only a national dialogue, with a reinforced role for the Army at its core, can counter the perils of visceral politics.

Now is not the time to engage in petty politicking. Mikati made many enemies by becoming prime minister against the will of a majority of his coreligionists, in what was a sordid arrangement that has brought him, and us, only misery. However, if Mikati were to resign today, the absence of a consensus would mean a prolonged period without a functioning government. This vacuum would carry Lebanon into the unknown, and into another minefield favored by Syria.

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