Thursday, November 29, 2012

Big Sunni gains may bring Lebanon pain

In recent days, the regime of President Bashar Assad has suffered significant setbacks in northern Syria. This may not be the end, but it only affirms that the dynamics of the conflict are being driven by the armed opposition, so that for the first time since March 2011, Assad rule appears to be decisively shaken, not to say terminally ill.

From a Lebanese perspective, the greatest danger will come once the battle in Syria is over. Lebanese Sunnis will feel triumphant, and legitimately so, after decades when they were regarded as a threat by the Assad regime. Their sense of renewed empowerment, in parallel with that of their brethren in Syria, could make them overconfident. This in turn could bring them into confrontation with an increasingly fearful but still militarily potent Lebanese Shiite community, led by Hezbollah. Managing this phase properly will require mechanisms of compromise and dialogue to avert the worst.

The problem is that for Sunnis, the removal of the Assads will represent a seminal moment. For decades, Sunnis have seen their powerful communal figures fall or marginalized. Rafik Hariri was assassinated, as was the mufti of the Republic, Sheikh Hassan Khaled, and other clerics, allegedly by Syria or their allies. Damascus sought to limit ties between Sunnis and their traditional regional reference points. The Syrian fear was that a resurgent Sunni community in Lebanon would give dangerous ideas to their brothers in Syria, in that way weakening the hold of the Alawite-dominated regime. Hariri’s elimination in 2005 could be well understood in this context.

The withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon that year did not immediately ameliorate matters. Hezbollah responded to the so-called Cedar Revolution with poorly concealed contempt. The party mouthed the necessary words about Hariri, while all the time doing its best to derail an international investigation of the crime – a crime, it now appears, in which Hezbollah members participated.

In 2006, after provoking an unnecessary war with Israel, Hezbollah went further, hoping to use its self-declared victory as a lever to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. For 18 months Hezbollah and its partners held a sit-in in the downtown area, destabilizing Lebanon and exacerbating Sunni rancor. This interregnum ended in May 2008, when the party’s gunmen and their partners, in response to a government decision to investigate Hezbollah’s illegal telephone network, overran western Beirut and humiliated the Sunnis, in the process killing dozens of people.

Hariri was trapped in his mansion, but would later tell me that he had avoided a political explosion by not calling for help from his Sunni followers outside Beirut. That was true. Hezbollah’s massive firepower neutralized its foes, but a call to arms from Hariri, which would certainly have ended up being clothed in sectarian language, would have been a catastrophe of unheard of proportions.

The Sunnis understandably never digested this violence done to the unwritten rules of the Lebanese sectarian system. When the equilibrium is undermined and one side gains the upper hand, especially through arms, the consequence is that the other side begins to accumulate weapons as well. As we saw on the night of Wissam al-Hasan’s funeral, Sunni groups in Tariq al-Jadideh have guns, even if their arsenal is nothing like Hezbollah’s. It doesn’t take much to start a war, and in war acquiring more weapons is easy.

Equally worrisome is that there is fragmentation in the Sunni community. Saad Hariri has been out of the country for a year and a half, creating large openings for others. The person who has benefited the most is Prime Minister Najib Mikati. More ominously, so too has the Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Assir in Sidon. Assir has criticized Hariri for his absence, and has loudly condemned Hezbollah. Earlier this month, there was a clash in Sidon between Assir’s partisans and Hezbollah, followed by a promise from Assir that he would form a militia, though he later said he would delay this.

If anyone is reassured by this purported delay, they should not be. The default setting of a populist firebrand like Assir is to enhance hostility, to rally more supporters. The sheikh has both discredited March 14 by declaring it ineffective and drawn on the deep reservoir of resentment among Sunnis against Hezbollah and its arrogance. This is a volatile mix, pushing Hariri and March 14 to stake out a hard-line position on national politics after the Hasan killing, in order, partly, to retain the allegiance of the Sunni street.

Yet there are signs of fraying. March 14 has little say over Assir, and it had little say over the armed groups that took over Tariq al-Jadideh and sought to provoke clashes with Shiite parties in nearby Barbour. Like the fighting in Sidon, this was a portentous moment for Lebanon, one too soon forgotten by many Lebanese. That is why Hariri can no longer delay his return. He has to regain control over his community and offer an alternative to warfare.

Presumably, the former prime minister will be on the first airplane back to Beirut after the collapse of the Assad regime. His primary aim must be to come to an agreement with his Sunni rivals first, before initiating a dialogue with Hezbollah and finding practical ways to avoid friction in the street. Hariri’s mantra must be the strengthening of the Lebanese state, which requires him to speak as one alongside President Michel Sleiman, Najib Mikati and Walid Jumblatt. It may be personally difficult for him to talk to Hezbollah, but the former prime minister has to remember that the future is his once the Assads go, and that political power will derive from his ability to manage the relationship with the party in a way that reassures the Lebanese.

When high expectations transcend the capacity of a political system to absorb the consequences, instability follows. We’ve learned this on countless occasions in Lebanon. Prepare to learn it again.

Sixty-year-old warnings still relevant for today's Palestine

Very few people today still read Michel Chiha to understand the continuing confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians. And yet quite a bit of what we are witnessing was predicted by this Lebanese thinker, writing in his newspaper, Le Jour, between 1945 and 1954.

This week, a conference to assess Chiha's legacy was organised in Beirut to commemorate Lebanese Independence Day. A banker, Chiha was best known as a drafter of Lebanon's constitution as well as an ideologue of the country's consociational system. For some, he mainly embodied Lebanon's ruling class - he was connected by marriage to Bishara Al Khoury, independent Lebanon's first president, and to Henri Pharaon, a leading light of the independence generation. For others, he remains a sophisticated and erudite voice from an alluring Lebanon long gone.

Both views are in some ways accurate. But on Palestine, he read events with great lucidity and took a position critical of the West, with whom Lebanon's leaders had otherwise maintained friendly relations. He is best known for his daily commentaries in Le Jour, in which he left a prominent place for Palestine, an issue that preoccupied him and on which he wrote frequently until his death in December 1954.

The essence of Chiha's views on the subject is that the Zionist project, in seeking exclusivity for the Jewish community, was bound to lead to an open-ended struggle with the Palestinian Arabs. As Nabil Khalifeh, Chiha's translator into Arabic, has astutely remarked, this exclusivity jarred strongly with the pluralism defended by the writer in the Lebanese context. Chiha did not oppose a Jewish presence in Palestine; rather, he defended the notion of a binational state, and even saw Lebanon as providing instruction in this respect.

As he wrote in a column on October 22, 1948: "The desire to live together, extreme tolerance, the total respect for liberty of conscience which we have used to illustrate our little country [Lebanon] can and must be proposed to the reflection of the world, if only as a humane solution to the Jewish question in Palestine."

This ambition he saw as threatened by the United Nations' partition plan of 1947, which could bring only tension. How could one divide a small country such as Palestine, he asked. Partition would create a place of discord, "a poor land that is narrow, stunted and disinherited". In this slight place, it was inevitable that one side would seek to seize everything, as that alone would provide security.

And here, Chiha explains, is the real problem with Israeli statehood. Perpetually insecure, the Israelis would seek to expand their hold over their geographical environment, and bolster this with demographic growth to consolidate their gains. While the writer was wrong in assuming that the Israelis would venture to extend their control all the way to the Euphrates, he was on the money in describing their inherent psychological drive for annexation.

To Chiha's credit, he was also acutely sensitive to the power of symbols in the land of the three great religions. He grasped that both Jews and Palestinians had applied idealistic and historical values to their national aspirations, which would be difficult to reverse. This was especially true in Jerusalem, of supreme significance to the three monotheistic religions, which was still a divided city at the time when he was writing, against the yearning of the Jews.

That brings us to two leitmotifs in Chiha's writings. First, the need for the great powers to implement the internationalisation of Jerusalem decided by the UN General Assembly in 1949, but never put into action. He believed this could only be done if backed by a physical presence and military force. And second, Chiha sought international guarantees for Arab-Israeli frontiers. In most of his later articles on the Palestinian question these goals are repeated almost as an obsession.

Chiha was absolutely correct. In June 1967, Israel would prove him so when it occupied all of Jerusalem, the Sinai peninsula, the Golan Heights and the West Bank. If peace remains elusive, that's because the Israelis continue to regard much of occupied Arab land as barriers necessary to protect them from their Arab neighbours. The Israeli settlement project in the West Bank and the divergences over Jerusalem are prime factors in undermining an overall peace deal.

Most enduring in Mr Chiha's tone on Palestine is something that tells us much about the author himself. Throughout, we are in the presence of a man both rational and liberal. Chiha is deeply troubled by what he knows will endure as a focal point of violence in the Middle East. The partition plan, by making this inevitable, was always an irrational choice, and what ensued was a conflict that would do much to overwhelm liberal impulses in the Arab world.

To a Lebanese political system based on openness and coexistence, Chiha realised, Palestine represented a mortal threat. It unleashed the worst atavisms, which could not do well for Lebanon's mixed Christian-Muslim society, while placing an expansionist Israel at Lebanon's doorstep. And it made recurring wars unavoidable, which would, in time, exacerbate Lebanon's contradictions. Chiha had played a leading role in balancing these, through his always sensible judgments on the functioning of the delicate political system.

Israel still uses its insecurities as justification for occupation. A united Jerusalem is still regarded as the eternal capital of the Jews. And, as the recent war in Gaza showed yet again, death and destruction are the only outlets in a dispute seemingly without end. Meanwhile, Lebanon remains vulnerable to developments southward, its society divided over whether to fight Israel or to remain neutral.

Michel Chiha warned us of all this decades ago. Alas, his fears are our reality.

Monday, November 26, 2012

For March 14, renewal time

It is an unfortunate but very real fact that the March 14 coalition is facing a credibility gap with many of the Western countries that had backed it during the years 2005-2009. That is not to say that the coalition has been abandoned, but rather that its ability to embody the state has suffered as President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Najib Miqati have filled the political center.

Miqati’s visit to France this week exposed the nature of the problem. The prime minister was received with all the honors, at a time when Samir Geagea launched what seemed a frivolous attack against Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker, accusing him of having kept parliament open despite the killing of several parliamentarians in the past seven years. How odd, given that Geagea’s allies had earlier blamed Berri for closing the institution between 2006 and 2008.

These types of petty conflicts, at a time of fear that Lebanon may be on the cusp of civil war following on from regional instability, make both foreign representatives and even many in the March 14 base groan. Suleiman and Walid Jumblatt talk about reconciliation; Miqati promises to make the government more effective. Here are the kinds of statements that foreign embassies want to hear. March 14 is justified in demanding an end to the wanton assassination of its partisans and allies. But in rejecting all dialogue it is perceived as part of the problem, which defeats the purpose.

It should have been clear to the March 14 leadership that they had lost the embassies in the wake of Wissam al-Hassan’s elimination. Even many of their supporters were worried about the sectarian consequences surrounding a crime that threatened to bring Sunnis into conflict with Shiites. This was evident before Hassan’s funeral, and yet the sad event only confirmed everyone’s worst fears, when demonstrators tried to storm the Serail, and when that night armed gunmen in Tariq al-Jadideh took to the streets in an eerie re-enactment of the opening stages of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975.

The strength of March 14 was always that it did not do that kind of thing—even if the gunmen were acting independently of the coalition. Hezbollah spent 18 months outside Fouad al-Siniora’s door from 2006 to 2008, yet the party did not storm the prime minister’s office, for fear that it would spark Sunni-Shiite clashes. On the other hand, the party did occupy western Beirut militarily, with allies, and it was to Saad Hariri’s great credit that he did not call in his brethren from the north to save him, for that would have meant war.

The integrity of March 14 came from the fact that it accepted the full authority of the state, even at those moments when shootings and bomb attacks were cutting down some of its leading lights. Of course, at the time the coalition held a parliamentary majority and controlled the cabinet. For it to abandon those principles today because the prime minister happens to be Najib Miqati is politically suicidal, and smacks of opportunism and hypocrisy. When the elections come around next year—elections that will be seminal, for they will define who will lead Lebanon after the exit of Bashar Assad in Syria—it will be very difficult indeed to mobilize voters on those seedy foundations.

There is time for March 14 to backtrack, even if there is little will to do so. One day Assad will fall, and that will radically alter the political landscape for Hezbollah. The party will not go away, but it will be far less able to carry Lebanon into a destructive war with Israel on Iran’s behalf, with much of Lebanese society wanting no such thing. Patience is required, time for the Syrian regime to go, to be followed by a serious effort at reconciliation with the Shiite community to eventually push for integration of Hezbollah’s weapons into the state.

Easier said than done. However, that must be the strategy followed to avert sectarian tensions which, paradoxically, the end of the war in Syria may make more rather than less likely, thanks to the wave of triumphalism that will seize the Lebanese Sunni community. Sunnis will face off against a politically debilitated Hezbollah, but also one massively armed and on its hind legs. Negotiating that phase will require a lucid March 14, not one out to settle old scores, even if Hezbollah has done much to make that sentiment inevitable.

In that way, March 14 will earn both the respect of foreign governments, essential for Lebanon’s wellbeing internationally, and newfound loyalty from its increasingly disenchanted followers. For now the focus must be on winning the elections next year and regaining control over state institutions. Miqati is not the issue, nor Berri. It is how Lebanon will emerge from the Syrian maelstrom, and whether sectarian relations can remain free of violence. March 14 must do more to convince us that it has thought this issue through.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

March 14 has taken its eye off the ball

It has been just over a month since the assassination of Wissam al-Hasan. In that time, the March 14 opposition has taken its eye off the political ball. This may have serious repercussions at election time next year. There is an opportunity to change tack, however, and Michel Sleiman and Walid Jumblatt’s reconciliation efforts provide it.

For weeks, the opposition has sought the departure of Najib Mikati’s team and its replacement by a neutral Cabinet, to no avail. A solid parliamentary majority stands behind the government and, alas, no new government can be formed against the wishes of Hezbollah. Moreover, none of the opposition’s friends overseas will accept a void in Beirut. The position of March 14, as understandable as it is in light of the Hasan killing, will lead nowhere, and indeed is backfiring.

March 14 must remember that before the murder of Hasan it had achieved two notable successes. It had built up a political axis with Sleiman, Jumblatt and even Mikati, in defense of the state; and it had laid down the cornerstone of an arrangement for winning parliamentary elections next year.

Hezbollah was not happy with this de facto March 14-Sleiman-Jumblatt-Mikati collaboration. For the first time since 2005, March 14 could say that both the president and prime minister shared its objectives, in a context far more stable than Saad Hariri’s Cabinet of 2009-2011, which Hezbollah and Syria did everything in their power to undermine. Under Mikati, Hezbollah was compelled to accept the maneuvers of its government partners, even when these went against the party’s preferences, for fear of seeing Mikati resign.

March 14 had a voice in the house, so to speak, and it was no surprise that both Sleiman and Jumblatt were managing to push Hezbollah into a corner on its arms, openly saying that the party had to integrate its arsenal into the Lebanese Army. This was an important advance on the president’s part, and Mikati agreed with it. To insist on the prime minister’s resignation in that context seems not only counterproductive, it unnecessarily grants Hezbollah breathing space.

Then there are the elections, which will largely define who controls Lebanon once the regime of Bashar Assad falls in Damascus. Hezbollah fairly early on gauged the significance of these elections for its own future, realizing that whoever controls Parliament as of next summer would have the means to bring in a friendly government, and the next president in 2014. This legitimacy would protect Hezbollah in a post-Assad Levant and allow it to pursue the “resistance” option against the wishes of many of its compatriots.

Yet the seminal import of the elections has not sunk in on the March 14 side – above all that the opposition will find it difficult to do as well as it did in 2009 without building a broad alliance with so-called centrist forces, including Sleiman and Mikati. Hariri has reconciled with Jumblatt, a good thing, but the real challenge for March 14 will be to win majorities in the predominantly Christian districts of Mount Lebanon. In Baabda and Jbeil, Michel Aoun continues to benefit from the support of rock-solid Shiite electoral blocs, as well as a unified Armenian bloc in the Metn, providing him with decisive advantages, regardless of whether his popularity has declined in relative terms.

For March 14 to gain on Aoun, it will need an electoral relationship with other Christian political forces better able to challenge Aoun in Mount Lebanon, where March 14’s popularity remains limited. Even in the Metn, the Kataeb is uncomfortable with the opposition’s strategy, which could harm March 14’s fortunes. An opening must be made to Sleiman and other independent Christians who will confront Aoun. This cannot be done when March 14 is leaving the president hanging out to dry on reconciliation, which bolsters his credibility.

As for Tripoli, the prevailing animosity toward Mikati could cost March 14 a sweep in the city. The prime minister has his critics, but he also has money and voters. If there is an electoral battle, which is not certain, the opposition could lose one or two seats, a worrisome prospect in what is bound to be a tight race.

Sunni unity is the foundation of March 14’s strength. Yet what we see today is a community increasingly in disarray, buffeted by the Mikati-Hariri rivalry, and more disturbingly by the emergence of radical figures such as Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in Sidon. By attacking the prime minister, March 14 only opens a wide avenue for Assir to do the same, even as the sheikh contests the credibility of Hariri and March 14. Better for March 14 to side with Mikati, albeit critically, and in that way guarantee that a majority of Sunnis remains on the side of the state, at a time when Assir’s warning that he may form an armed group has taken him in a contentiously opposite direction.

March 14 will probably not reassess its position, but if it were to do so the obvious means would be to embrace Sleiman and Jumblatt’s endeavors to resume the National Dialogue. Yes, a dialogue is difficult with Hezbollah, but March 14 worked with the party after the 2009 elections, despite many assassinations and Hezbollah’s takeover of western Beirut in 2008.

Bashar Assad will fall, which will weaken Hezbollah, but in the meantime Lebanon has to be secured against Sunni-Shiite conflict. March 14 must also prepare for the big test that is the election next year. With Sleiman and Jumblatt, the opposition can bring victory for those wanting to reaffirm state authority against Hezbollah’s project. Hasan’s death has derailed that scheme, and the only beneficiaries are those with no interest in a cohesive state. March 14 cannot afford to lose sight of where its interests truly lie.

Political paralysis in Lebanon bodes well for Hizbollah

Lebanon's contradictions were on display on Monday. Even as Prime Minister Najib Mikati was meeting French officials in Paris, two rockets were discovered in the south of the country aimed at Israel. And this just over a month after the assassination in Beirut of Wissam Al Hassan, the head of the intelligence service of the Internal Security Forces, whose killing greatly destabilised the domestic political scene.

The Lebanese today are facing a range of dangerous challenges. The country continues to be shaken by the war in neighbouring Syria; the economy is suffering; sectarian relations are under alarming stress, particularly between the Shia and Sunni communities; and if Israel and Iran were to confront each other over Tehran's nuclear programme, Hizbollah's likely entry into the fray on Iran's side would have devastating consequences for Lebanon.

The national mood is grim amid fears that the country will succumb to the violence all around it. Such an outcome cannot be discounted, though the Lebanese have one thing going for them: the utter absence of a desire among a large majority of the population to embark on a ruinous civil war that would resolve nothing.

Since the elimination of Mr Hassan, the March 14 coalition, which was close to the dead officer and whose most prominent figure is Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, has focused on bringing down the Mikati government. It has boycotted parliament and national dialogue sessions hosted by President Michel Sleiman. March 14 has also called for the formation of a non-partisan government to oversee parliamentary elections next summer.

These demands have failed to make headway, in part because the United States and the European countries fear that if Mr Mikati were to step down, Lebanon would enter into a prolonged and dangerous vacuum. Nor does Hizbollah have any desire to see a new government take over, and without the party's acquiesce it is difficult to see how any government, neutral or otherwise, could be formed.

Mr Mikati's trip to France, during which he was provided with an opportunity to reaffirm his legitimacy, was a further blow to March 14's strategy. Worse, the Lebanese opposition finds itself being overtaken on its right by Sunni groups disappointed with what they consider to be Mr Hariri's passivity. The former prime minister has been outside Lebanon since April 2011, leaving open spaces in the Sunni community to be filled by far more radical figures, for instance Ahmad Al Assir, a Salafist sheikh in Sidon whose men recently clashed with Hizbollah in the city.

The Sidon fighting followed armed clashes in Beirut on the day of Mr Hassan's burial, when armed Sunni groups in the Tariq Al Jadideh district of Beirut began firing on neighbouring Shia-dominated quarters. This showed that the Sunnis, or at least the angriest among them, are armed. In both cases the army intervened with unusual decisiveness, but ambient tension remains palpable.

The frustration of March 14 is perhaps understandable. Mr Hassan was a political ally and only the latest among the many figures in or close to the coalition wantonly killed in the past seven years since Syria was forced to withdraw from Lebanon. The view in March 14 is that he was murdered on Syria's orders, but that the operation was carried out by Hizbollah, which had an interest in removing a competent man of the shadows who headed an intelligence agency opposed to Hizbollah and the Assad regime in Syria.

Because Mr Hassan provided protection to March 14, the coalition members have felt increasingly vulnerable. They believe that unless Mr Mikati's government is brought down, and by extension that of Hizbollah, which plays a leading role in government, they will remain at the mercy of a system stacked against them. That could well be true, but the error of March 14 has been to pursue calculations that are presently unrealistic, at a moment of great international anxiety when no one is eager to see Lebanon enter a void.

So, March 14 must accept that western countries today prefer a Lebanese government dominated by Hizbollah to the unknown. It is with this in mind that both Mr Sleiman and the Druse leader, Walid Jumblatt, have sought to defuse Sunni-Shia tensions and bring about a measure of reconciliation between March 14 and Hizbollah and its political allies. The president has called for a resumption of the national dialogue. Mr Jumblatt has echoed Mr Sleiman's invitation and pushed an initiative to create a national-unity government.

Mr Jumblatt has much to gain - because he has much to lose if the Sunni and Shia communities begin fighting. The areas under his political control contain or are surrounded by concentrations of the two communities. The economic lifeline of the vulnerable Druse depends on Sunni-Shia harmony. Moreover, Mr Jumblatt is in a sensitive spot: his bloc holds the balance in parliament, and can give the majority to one side or the other. March 14 has criticised him for failing to bring down the government. But the Druse leader feels that this would needlessly antagonise Hizbollah, make the formation of a new government impossible, and heighten animosities further.

For now, March 14 has rejected Mr Sleiman's requests and any talk of a national-unity government. But the paradox is that March 14's maximalism may weaken it further. By discrediting Mr Mikati the coalition only encourages more extreme forces in the Sunni community to go even further. Recently, Mr Assir hinted that he might form an armed group. Yet by doing nothing, March 14 risks being dismissed and outmanoeuvred by these same groups.

These dynamics are hardly reassuring for a country already having great trouble swimming in the region's troubled waters.