Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lebanon’s year of living dangerously

Lebanon never ceases to depress, and the Lebanese never cease to depress by harping on that fact. And yet, as 2012 closes, with mediocrity on all sides, there are hopeful signs of better. And this may shape how we behave next year.

The most hopeful sign of 2012 was that the Lebanese avoided war, and were infused with a very real sense that events in Syria must not overwhelm civil peace in Lebanon. Instead, the Lebanese fought each other by proxy, with Hezbollah and Lebanese Sunni groups sending combatants to Syria to prevent or accelerate Bashar Assad’s downfall, assuming this would somehow affect their fate at home.

There were moments of worrisome exception. On the night of Wissam al-Hasan’s funeral, gunmen in Tariq al-Jadideh began firing on quarters in which Shiite parties are based. The army intervened the following day to bring the gunmen to heel. Fighting between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen has been frequent, though mostly containable. And in Sidon, the men of Ahmad al-Assir entered into a gunbattle with Hezbollah, reminding us that the southern city remains a dangerous confrontation line between Sunnis and Shiites.

This is hardly proof that all is well, but the Lebanese in their majority recoiled before any prospect of new violence. This was especially true of the botched effort by March 14 members to forcibly overthrow Prime Minister Najib Mikati by storming the Serail building after Hasan’s burial. Even March 14 supporters were shocked by this display of loutishness that echoed behavior they had once denounced in Hezbollah, which, with its allies, sought in 2006-08 to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora.

Which brings us to another promising sign from 2012, namely that many Lebanese began seeing the advantages of the political center. With March 14 having broken off all relations with Hezbollah, it was inevitable that the Lebanese would be drawn to political forces able to speak to both sides. One shouldn’t over-idealize the center, whose influence remains relatively limited. However, its ability to stand aloof of polarization is something the Lebanese have applauded.

For President Michel Sleiman, who embodies the center better than most, the slogan has been continued dialogue. He seeks to reinvigorate a National Dialogue, which is today rejected by March 14, on the grounds that one cannot hold a dialogue with killers. But as many Lebanese accept, when the well-being of the state is at play, everything is possible. They do not want their country thrown into a new civil war because political coalitions aren’t willing to speak to one another. And if dialogue is hypocritical, then better a hypocritical dialogue that defuses tensions to none whatsoever, which makes violent behavior more likely in the future.

What will all this mean at election time next year? It’s not clear that the center has the electoral weight to challenge Hezbollah or March 14. Lebanon remains polarized, despite it all, which is why there are those at both extremes who argue that supporting the political center is a waste of time. Yet polarization may mean that the representatives of the center, Sleiman or the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, may emerge from next year’s elections again holding the balance of power in parliament, and will be essential in forming a government.

Even the international community, through foreign ambassadors in Beirut, are tired of the March 14-Hezbollah rift. The ambassadors, alas, now seem to regard March 14 as part of the problem in Lebanon. Hopefully this will change, but in the meantime there is more comfort with the political actors in the middle, who are willing to use constitutional means to limit Hezbollah’s ability to bend the system in its own direction. The party will not disappear, whatever happens in Syria, the envoys feel, so it’s best to keep an open channel to Hezbollah’s leadership to negotiate a solution to their weapons.

The Lebanese also went through the year without an economic collapse. The advantages are limited, given that many Lebanese are asking that a salary increase be implemented. For bankers, such a step would spell the collapse of the pound, and would shake the banking system to the very core.

It’s debatable whether next year will be better. Lebanon is suffering from the negative effects of the Syrian conflict, which has suffocated Lebanon’s overland export trade, has limited the number of Arab tourists driving to Lebanon, and has cut into Syrian and Arab demand for Lebanese goods and services. That’s not heartening, but nor is it bad news that the country has managed to keep its head above water despite 21 months of a debilitating war on its doorstep.

The year 2013 may be difficult for the Lebanese economically. Yet much will depend on what happens in Syria. If the Assad regime collapses relatively quickly, Lebanon may be at the forefront of reconstruction there. Assad’s departure may usher in a period of instability, and may even force rival Lebanese alignments to clash with one another. On the other hand, this is hardly inevitable, and Assad’s exit may, instead, help stabilize a Lebanon that has spent decades shaking to the rhythms of Syrian-imposed volatility.

With the Assads gone, Hezbollah’s ability to wage war will be greatly reduced. The party is aware that most Lebanese, including Shiites, are not eager to go to war with Israel. No one wants to face the consequences of such a conflict, above all the destruction that would ensue, especially if it is perceived as a favor done to Iran.

The past year has not been an easy one for the Lebanese, and next year may bring more headaches. However, bad years impose modesty, and the Lebanese have few illusions left. Fear of violence, a desire for dialogue and economic vulnerability are not things that induce recklessness. In that conclusion lies hope for a people forever afflicted with doubts about their future.

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