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.

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