Thursday, November 22, 2012

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.

No comments: