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.

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