Thursday, September 6, 2012

A reunion Michel Sleiman must exploit

So Walid Jumblatt and Saad Hariri are back on speaking terms. That’s good news for the March 14 coalition, but it’s also good news for another leading politician, President Michel Sleiman, who in recent weeks has moved a significant way away from his previous reticence on Syria, as the uprising there rages on.

A settlement between Jumblatt and Hariri was always in the cards. Both must collaborate over the matter of parliamentary elections, scheduled for next year – to block a proportional law in Parliament and to form joint lists and exchange votes on election day. In addition, Jumblatt is eager to get back into the good graces of Saudi Arabia, which provides him with the power of patronage.

Sleiman may be unhappy that his proposal for a proportional election law will be shot down, but the president always knew that this would happen given the makeup of Parliament. As he looks ahead he has other priorities. Extending his mandate is very likely one of them, but also to maneuver more freely within the Christian community and land on his feet once the regime of President Bashar Assad falls.

The Syrians are known to be unhappy with Sleiman, who has taken a more forceful position on recent Syrian violations of Lebanese sovereignty than the Assad regime would like. That’s where the Jumblatt-March 14 rapprochement becomes most useful for the president. He now finds himself at a nexus point between the prime minister, Najib Mikati, Jumblatt, and March 14, better able to protect himself politically by navigating through their contending interests.

Already, Mikati is reportedly thinking ahead to election time next summer. If the situation in Syria is still where it is today, the prime minister will contemplate delaying elections. Such a move would be controversial, but the major political forces might ultimately agree to it: Saad Hariri, because he would not want to manage with a Sunni community more radicalized than ever in the midst of conflict; Jumblatt, because he is perennially in favor of averting sectarian confrontations; Mikati, because he does not want a security fiasco; and Hezbollah because it rules over a parliamentary majority and won’t lose anything through perpetuation of the status quo.

That Jumblatt might leave the government before then does not seem probable. The Druze leader gains by playing all sides against one another, and bringing down Mikati’s Cabinet would effectively mean sawing off the branch on which he sits. More interesting is what Jumblatt would do if the elections were postponed. He would then be in a position to side with Mikati and March 14 and perhaps demand the formation of a more neutral government in the run-up to the delayed elections, assuming he seeks such an outcome.

Given all the talk about deferring the elections, Sleiman must be shivering with anticipation. Here is a man of whom it was once said that his great ambition was to become a former president. Yet now he actually has the latitude to make a difference, and knows that any delay in parliamentary elections, for a year let’s say, would mean that his own term, which ends in May 2014, is extended.

The president’s Maronite rivals are in abeyance. Michel Aoun is backing the wrong side in Syria, which can only benefit Sleiman. The president gains from keeping friendly channels open to the Sunni community, whose role in Syria and Lebanon will be enhanced in the coming years. As for Samir Geagea, he has little choice but to support Sleiman, to avoid handing an advantage to Aoun or even in some respects to Patriarch Beshara Rai, who has vacillated on Syria, but also because the president’s inclinations frequently echo his own.

How can Sleiman exploit his newfound respectability? He has some influence over the Army, but that house of many mansions is open to all sides, not least to its commander, Jean Kahwagi, who dreams of succeeding Sleiman in Baabda. And in the dysfunctional Cabinet, Sleiman will continue to hit up against Aoun, who considers himself the paramount Christian representative, and against Syria’s partners, who intrinsically mistrust any independent Maronite president.

That leaves two things for Sleiman to do. The first is to impose a measure of moral authority over his coreligionists, by defining a more consensual path for Lebanon’s Christians in light of the major regional transformations coming up. This must necessarily involve realigning the community with regard to both Sunnis and Shiites, so that Christians reconcile both, and with both, as with the state itself, permitting them to better impose their preferences in the future.

A second aim of Sleiman must be to reassert the institutional power of the presidency. During the last two decades, the president has become a factotum, the weakest link in the ruling triumvirate of power. This has destabilized the political system and undermined Maronite confidence. Hariri and Jumblatt have traditionally opposed a strong presidency, but they now need Sleiman as much as he needs them.

The problem is that this president is not the most profound or inspiring of thinkers. If his focus in on staying in office beyond 2014, then expect no miracles from him. But two years, and perhaps more, is plenty for Sleiman to help alter the Christian mindset and revive the vitality of the presidency if he opts to do so. The Jumblatt-Hariri reunion opens up a valuable path in those directions.

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