Friday, March 22, 2013

Deactivate Lebanon’s sectarian time bomb

With many Lebanese understandably worried about the possibility of a sectarian conflict in Lebanon between Sunnis and Shiites, it no longer makes sense for March 14 to reject a dialogue with Hezbollah. Instead, the parties should set up mechanisms to defuse tensions on the ground if and when these occur.

March 14 might argue that such a proposal is naïve. After all, Hezbollah will pursue its agenda regardless of the resentment this generates nationally. For instance a key measure that would reduce antagonism is for the party to end its direct involvement in the Syrian war. However, Hezbollah would never agree, since it regards the survival of the Assad regime as a strategic necessity.

The dangers of rejecting a dialogue lie elsewhere. Today, any clash occurring in the street can degenerate into a major conflagration. It is in no one’s interest to allow this situation to fester. To say that Hezbollah never implements that to which it agrees is to miss that the party only implements what it considers advantageous to its interests. Averting sectarian strife is desirable for the party, given its reluctance to enter into a civil war with the Sunni community.

What might March 14 and Hezbollah discuss? One item alone must be on their agenda, that of setting up mechanisms, in coordination with the Lebanese Army, to defuse incidents that may otherwise spiral out of control. This must, first, involve naming someone in each camp to communicate with a counterpart on the other side and intervene in unison at the right moment. Ideally suited to represent Hezbollah is Wafiq Safa, who heads the party’s security apparatus. On the March 14 side, the representative must be a Sunni with street credibility. Nouhad Mashnouq, who represents Beirut in Parliament, may be that man, as he has both the experience and the ties to the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to give him standing in Sunni quarters.

There is an additional challenge on both sides, namely that they do not control all those actors who might cause trouble. The limited influence of March 14 over Salafist groups, even more than Hezbollah’s inability to control individual Shiites, is a potentially serious liability. There will always be those who won’t feel constrained by an understanding between March 14 and Hezbollah.

However, a system of coordination that prevents an escalation and incorporates the army can compensate somewhat. Within an agreed coordination structure, the army would be able to communicate better with both sides and act swiftly in the event of a deteriorating situation, in accord with March 14 and Hezbollah. Moreover, the army can also ask the parties to act preemptively to neutralize rising tensions in an area if it observes such a development.

In the end the strength of such mechanisms lies in the quality of the people implementing them on a daily basis. Hezbollah has an efficient security network and effective means of intimidation. March 14 does not. That’s why the coalition must carefully select individuals in neighborhoods who have informal power, are respected, and who can call on collaborators to assist them. This may be easier said than done, but neighborhood, sports, and professional networks can all be drafted into the effort to calm spirits if altercations occur. And they must have a direct line to the army for when things get out of hand.

Fears of an outbreak of sectarian violence are not overdone. However, Lebanon has not traditionally been a place of Sunni-Shiite animosity. During the war years the communities fought on the same side. There has not been a history of oppression by one community against the other, as in Iraq. Western Beirut is full of quarters with mixed Sunni-Shiite populations, and has always been. In other words there are no deep roots of sectarian hostility. Differences between the communities are essentially grounded in political disagreements.

Political differences do not mean things are not worrisome. The fear in Lebanon is that a spark from an incident will lead to a cycle of violent behavior that gradually escalates as the casualty toll rises. At some stage, even intervention by the army can be counterproductive, as arrests provoke anger that will not subside.

March 14 will not readily go back on its pledge to avoid participating in the national dialogue. But that doesn’t mean that President Michel Suleiman cannot organize a smaller dialogue forum, under his auspices perhaps with the backing of religious figures, to address the specific matter of neighborhood conflicts. There would be no political program here; only agreement to dismantle sectarian time bombs.

Ultimately, the president might consider expanding the number of participants, though it would be best at first to keep the numbers limited until momentum is achieved. There is no point in allowing the dialogue to break down immediately as some parties engage in brinkmanship in order to burnish their reputation. As a former army commander, and as someone neither Sunni nor Shiite, Suleiman is particularly suitable to lead such a discussion.

For all this to have true meaning, it should be extended to ordinary individuals in both communities. Non-governmental organizations can be enlisted to guide the effort. Sunnis and Shiites can be brought together in numerous local contexts to reaffirm their desire to live in peace. One dreads to imagine what a conflict would mean to people living cheek by jowl in mixed neighborhoods, an additional incentive to persuade people to participate in a dialogue effort.

A dialogue along these lines is not about politics, so the parties should not allow politics to undermine the effort. It is about reducing ill feeling and building the means to deactivate any movement toward discord. It is about making sure that Lebanon does not sink into a war that would devastate a country that has already suffered enough.

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