Thursday, May 3, 2012

Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites must speak

It is understandable that Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, has little patience for normalizing relations with Hezbollah. Party members stand accused of having participated in his father’s assassination; Hezbollah abruptly pushed Hariri out of office last year and replaced him with Najib Mikati, against the wishes of a majority of Sunnis; and four years ago, in May 2008, party gunmen assaulted western Beirut to reverse a formal government decision.

Next weekend, on the occasion of Martyrs Day, Hariri will be making a speech addressing several issues pertaining to Syria and Hezbollah. Among the domestic topics he will apparently raise is how the party has undermined the spirit of the Doha Accord, which ended the brutal operation of 2008 and led to the election of Michel Sleiman as president. According to a parliamentarian from the Future Movement, speaking to this newspaper, the former prime minister will not launch a new initiative toward Hezbollah and its partners.

That’s a shame, because if Hariri’s assessment of the outcome in Syria is correct – that the regime of President Bashar Assad is destined to fall – then he has no option but to engage in some sort of dialogue with Hezbollah, even if it means pinching his nose while doing so.

Yes, Hariri remembers what happened to his father when he embarked upon an exchange of ideas with the party’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, before the parliamentary elections of 2005. There is no need to be starry-eyed about a dialogue with a party that is anxiously, and by all accounts violently, protecting its political turf by contributing to the Assad regime’s repression. However, from a purely pragmatic national perspective, Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites need urgently to introduce mechanisms to lower the tension between them, especially as the departure of Bashar Assad will unleash political and sectarian forces that may become uncontrollable.

Because Hariri is likely to come out on top in Lebanon if his Syrian enemies suffer defeat, any opening must come from him. This would allow the former prime minister to better manage a post-Assad strategy and have greater control over the agenda with Hezbollah. Hariri need not e personally in discussions with Nasrallah. At this stage both men can name confidants to pursue regular behind-the-scenes contacts, without ceding ground on principles.

Some politicians have suggested that Hariri at least send out feelers to Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament. This seems to be good advice. Berri’s interests and those of Hezbollah may diverge if there is a transformation in Syria. The speaker has a desire to be somewhat more autonomous from Hezbollah, and certainly from Michel Aoun, in the elections next year. However, Berri will not break with Hezbollah, nor can he challenge the party electorally, so it’s best to keep expectations low as to what he can and cannot do.

That’s why Hariri and Nasrallah must be at the heart of a conversation between the Sunni and Shiite communities. Hariri’s long absence has not yet decisively eroded his influence among Sunnis. Assad’s ouster will not magically disarm Hezbollah. The equation is a simple one in that sense: Sooner or later, if new leaders come to power in Damascus, both Hariri and Nasrallah will have to shield Lebanon from the backlash, whether it is positive or negative.

Hariri’s calculation is that time is on his side. Why legitimize and strengthen Hezbollah through a dialogue at a moment when it stands accused before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, has endorsed official savagery in Syria, and has pitifully failed in its efforts at one-sided governance through the dysfunctional Mikati Cabinet? That’s a defensible position if the aim is merely to earn political leverage.

However, the risks are rather more serious these days. The sectarian genie has been let out of the bottle in Syria, thanks to the recklessness of the Assads. Foreign jihadists are reportedly entering the country, even if many in the Syrian opposition reject such assistance. Sectarian paranoia cannot be far behind, and if there is one thing that Hariri and Nasrallah share – and maybe one thing alone – it’s a yearning to avoid being sucked into a wider Sunni-Shiite conflict.

The primary objective of a Hariri-Hezbollah discussion must be to find ways of sidelining sectarian confrontation on the ground, by developing ways to neutralize flashpoints. Admittedly, this will not be easy when Hezbollah is reportedly financing anti-Hariri groups in Tripoli, and is playing on contradictions in the Sunni community. Nasrallah won’t cede ground on his vital interests, nor should Hariri. Which is why any basis for contacts must be relatively unambitious. There will be no long-term political agreement between the parties; nor should one expect a debate over political ideas. For now, Nasrallah and Hariri can only address a single item: finding practical ways to lower sectarian hostility between their followers.

This can involve anything from moderating their public statements and media coverage, to naming people on the ground in mixed districts who can manage or mediate in disputes. It will also require, necessarily, that both sides re-examine certain aspects of their political behavior. Don’t ask Nasrallah to abandon the Assad regime, nor Hariri to discontinue assistance to the regime’s foes. But there is room within this framework to reconsider irresponsible actions that will unnecessarily provoke the other side.

Hariri and Nasrallah have to think into the future. Both need to devise a fallback plan in case their initial expectations are proven wrong. If the Assads hold out, Sunni anger in Syria and Lebanon will rise. If the Assads tumble, Lebanon’s Shiites will feel more vulnerable than ever. Conceivably, the Syrian regime may have a scheme to retreat to the Alawite heartland. Whichever scenario plays out, it will impact on communal relations in Lebanon. The country needs a sectarian safety net now, and Hariri and Nasrallah alone can provide it.

No comments: