Friday, December 14, 2012

Remembering Gebran Tueni the right way

It’s been almost two months since Wissam al-Hassan was killed on a side street in Ashrafieh. And on Wednesday, Lebanon commemorated the seventh anniversary of Gebran Tueni’s assassination. The contrast between the ways March 14 reacted to each crime is instructive.

When Tueni was murdered in December 2005, a majority in the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora did not demand that Hezbollah’s ministers resign by arguing that coexistence was no longer possible. Indeed, March 14 went on to participate in the national dialogue, under the auspices of Emile Lahoud no less, in which it made political gains, albeit empty ones in retrospect.

The core of the March 14 strategy then was to persist in strengthening the state and upholding state institutions against all efforts to undermine them by Hezbollah. When the party, in May 2008, turned its guns against fellow Lebanese and terrorized them for several days in western Beirut, the mask fell. The assault showed there could be no real coexistence between a sovereign Lebanese state and a sovereign armed group completely beholden to the regime in Iran.

Today, March 14 has sought, unsuccessfully, to take on a different, unnatural persona: that of a coalition willing to behave, if need be, outside the confines of the state. The opposition insists that state institutions, above all the government and the army, are controlled by Hezbollah, which allegedly justifies their political tactics.

Yet how valid is this assessment? There is no doubt that Hezbollah has great influence over the government. However, a blocking third pursues different priorities and has been able to successfully resist the party on major issues. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon was funded, against the wishes of Hezbollah and the Aounists. The party’s desire to pass a new election law based on proportional representation has been undermined by Walid Jumblatt, who, with the Future Movement in parliament, would be able to block approval of such a law.

As for the army, Hezbollah and Michel Aoun do have a significant say over its behavior, not least because the army commander, Jean Qahwaji, believes the party will back him to succeed President Michel Suleiman. However, the army is a complicated institution, with many among its rank and file opposed to Hezbollah and Aoun. There is only so much the army command can do without risking a split in its ranks. Ultimately, Qahwaji will not want to confront Hezbollah’s enemies, and be in bad odor with a part of Lebanese society that he will have to rally to his side if he ever becomes head of state.

That was a lesson learned from Michel Suleiman. Suleiman carefully avoided using violence against opposition demonstrators after Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination. Yet he made it equally clear that the army would not permit the forcible overthrow of Emile Lahoud. The army commander showed that he could walk through raindrops. When a successor to Lahoud was sought, Suleiman was seen as a suitable choice by the Future Movement thanks to his earlier performance.

While Suleiman is still treading gingerly when it comes to Syria, he has lent legitimacy to the arrest of the former minister Michel Samaha. And in the national dialogue sessions, he has taken the lead in proposing that Hezbollah’s weapons eventually be turned over to the army. And what has March 14 done? It has hung the president out to dry, while there are those in the opposition who will publicly express their doubts about the armed forces.

What kind of state-centered strategy can work when national dialogue is denounced and when doubt is cast on the institution expected to make Hezbollah’s control over its weapons redundant? No one is asking March 14 to embrace naiveté when it comes to Hezbollah; only to be consistent with its own actions in the past, and with the approach it adopted in the wake of Hariri’s killing.

No one doubts what Hezbollah is capable of when it comes to preserving its own interests. But making headway against the party does not mean isolating or condemning the men who have sought to contain Hezbollah within the confines of national institutions. That includes Suleiman, Jumblatt, and Prime Minister Najib Miqati. Perhaps the recent dinner in Mukhtara between Jumblatt and Siniora, accompanied by a group of Future Movement officials, is a sign that there are some in March 14 increasingly unsure about their growing marginalization, following on from their hostility toward Miqati, their refusal to dialogue, and their boycott of parliament.

Perhaps, too, there are those in March 14 who can see the obvious, namely that the international community, including the United States, prefers any Lebanese government, even one in which Hezbollah is represented, to a political vacuum in Beirut.

Which is why March 14 is in need of a better strategy. The coalition has painted itself into a corner politically, and has somehow transformed its adversaries, most absurdly Hezbollah, into premier embodiments of the state. How unfortunate, and how short-sighted. The opposition must focus on the essential: bolstering the state and its avatars, even if it includes those with whom it has differences, against a Hezbollah that has time and again shown profound contempt for the state, at least one over which it cannot rule.

On the anniversary of Gebran Tueni’s murder, it’s important for March 14 to get it right. There is no gain in having to bury more dead while being seen as the problem in Lebanon, rather than the solution.

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