Friday, March 1, 2013

Hezbollah corners March 14

Many things can be said about the current disagreement over an election law, but one thing is undeniable: Hezbollah has very successfully shifted the debate away from the 1960 law, which, it believes, would ensure victory for Saad Hariri and his allies.

It was the error of the March 14 coalition not to see what was coming, and it was negligence on the part of the Future Movement in particular not to prepare an election proposal of its own to throw into the pot in order to have something with which to negotiate.

The 1960 law has been delegitimized, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Christian parties in March 14, such as the Kataeb, who have said that it failed to give Christians proper representation. The Lebanese Forces were more ambiguous, but have now signed off on the Orthodox proposal, which, if nothing else, has split March 14, perhaps irreparably. So, Hezbollah and the majority have hit two birds with one stone. They have created a rift in the ranks of their opponents, and they have discredited the one law that might have given Saad Hariri and his comrades a chance at victory.

The calculation in Hariri circles was that lack of agreement over a new law would ensure that the old law applied. Yet this conclusion (which I also argued) was a misreading of the mood in the Christian, particularly the Maronite, community, as well as of the unwillingness of Samir Geagea and the Gemayels to hear Michel Aoun again say that their parliamentarians had won thanks to Muslim voters. There was also a realization that the Maronite patriarch, Bishara al-Rai, would weigh in and heighten Christian fears, in this way further marginalizing Geagea and the Gemayels.

But if March 14 didn’t adequately prepare for the oncoming train wreck of the election law debate, Hezbollah and Aoun did, and played their cards right. The results have been bad, since the Orthodox proposal they defend (the same one Walid Jumblatt insists is dead) would ensure more sectarian fragmentation of a country already well divided. But it will also mean that Hezbollah and its allies have a good chance of remaining in control of Lebanon. That is their aim, and has been since they realized that Bashar al-Assad might not hang on.

In a speech on Wednesday, Hassan Nasrallah denied that Hezbollah sought to delay elections. Why would it, he asked, when all the laws on the table appear to presage a defeat for March 14. In that respect Nasrallah was in agreement with March 14, or at least those in it who do not support the Orthodox proposal. But it was also odd to hear him implicitly admit that the fears of March 14 were justified.

So what is next for the opposition? Saad Hariri has said that he will return to Beirut at election time. However, political campaigns require more than a last-minute appearance by the leading candidate. Hariri must come back before then and help define what the election is about. He has much legwork to do to repair his alliances and formulate a message that injects new life into a moribund March 14.

One can, of course, say that Samir Geagea and the Gemayels struck a blow at March 14 through their endorsement of the Orthodox proposal, and that they consciously walked into the trap that Hezbollah and Syria had set for them. But blaming the Christians for March 14’s demise is simplistic. When the leader of the coalition has been absent for nearly two years, to the extent that every appearance by him is regarded as an exceptional event, we have to wonder whether this hasn’t damaged the cohesiveness of March 14 even more.

The first question it prompts is whether Hariri truly wants to be a major player in Lebanon, or whether he is driven largely by a desire for retribution against those suspected of having killed his father. If he does seek a political role, then politics is about presence, dealing with issues and people; it’s about using all the instruments at one’s disposal in pursuit of clear objectives. If Hezbollah was able to widen the cracks in March 14, that’s because it saw that in the absence of its most powerful figure, the coalition would collapse in disarray.

And with all due respect to the current Future leadership, it is only Saad Hariri who has the latitude to persuade the Sunni community, to rebuild March 14 as a more cohesive entity, to open a dialogue with Hezbollah and decrease tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, and to gradually fill the large spaces left by his extended departure.

When Hariri urged voters to choose March 14 candidates in 2009, he failed to say that he would not be among them two years later. But his responsibility to voters has not diminished. Hezbollah is manipulating the void Hariri has left because it can, at a moment when March 14 seems to have lost any common sense of direction.

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