Monday, March 18, 2013

It’s renewal time for a grim March 14

On the eighth anniversary of the March 14 demonstration against the Syrian presence in Lebanon, the mood in the coalition is grim. Discord over a new election law, with the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb favoring the so-called Orthodox proposal against the interests of the Future bloc, has cracked March 14 and the cross-communal coordination that was its strength. How remote seems the unity of 2005. The Lebanese Forces have sought to defend their position by arguing that it was misunderstood. If so, it was up to the party’s leader, Samir Geagea, to better explain his intentions before he sided with Michel Aoun and Hezbollah on what he knew was a plan that would be perceived by his political partners as a stab in the back. Many Sunnis regard the Orthodox proposal as being directed against them, while all it will do is ensure that March 14 fails to win a majority.

Geagea, in private exchanges with journalists, has said that one of his aims was to strengthen March 14 by forcing Walid Jumblatt to make a choice. The Orthodox proposal would weaken Jumblatt, thereby forcing the Druze leader to move closer to his Sunni and Christian electorates. Geagea also feared that Jumblatt would engineer a new tripartite agreement to guarantee a sizable number of Jumblatti seats in parliament, and he didn’t want to pay for that strategy.

Geagea’s fears may be well founded, but his primary motivation in backing the Orthodox proposal was to undermine the 1960 law that would likely allow Jumblatt to again play a balancing role in Parliament, and hold March 14 hostage to his political calculations. If so, the scheme backfired. Jumblatt and Saad Hariri have moved closer politically, while Geagea is busy explaining that his subtlety was lost on everyone. Meanwhile, March 14 is in disarray.

It has been a difficult eight years for March 14, whose unifying purpose was to oppose a Syrian return to Lebanon. This was quickly, and naturally, transformed into hostility toward Hezbollah, Syria’s principal Lebanese ally. There was a danger here: What was initially an intifada against a system imposed from outside, by Damascus, became a domestic struggle, one with worrisome sectarian overtones as Sunnis and Shiites came to resent one another.

Hezbollah was mostly responsible for this state of affairs. The party broke all the unwritten rules of the confessional system, especially when it mounted a military assault in western Beirut against the Future Movement in May 2008. Nor has Hezbollah dispelled the deep suspicion that it played a role in most of the assassinations in 2005 and afterward, especially that of Rafik Hariri but also the bomb attack that killed Wissam al-Hasan of the Internal Security Forces.

Despite this, March 14 has gradually come to be perceived as a failure. The coalition dealt unimaginatively with the arrival of Najib Mikati as prime minister, and in its zeal to discredit him, it has taken political positions contradicting those it had adopted in the past. It is frustrated that Mikati has earned a measure of international respect, and, along with President Michel Sleiman, is considered a far more significant obstacle to Hezbollah’s agenda than March 14.

The departure of Hariri has little helped March 14’s credibility. For many foreign governments, as well as their representatives in Beirut, the nearly two-year absence of the leader of the opposition means they have no interlocutor with whom to communicate. And without one, the ability of March 14 to get its message across is limited.

Nor has it done any good that March 14 figures made faulty calculations on the Syrian conflict. Their belief in the imminent fall of the Assad regime was wrong, while there is a real threat that Lebanon will be further destabilized by the fighting next door. Hezbollah has been active in Syria, but so too have been March 14 figures and their allies on the ground in supporting the Syrian opposition. This may be morally justifiable, but it goes against the policy pushed by the government of isolating Lebanon from the upheaval in Syria.

At a broader level, March 14 is no longer identified with the project that made it so attractive to many Lebanese, that of building a strong and sovereign state. Partly, this is due to its decision to become an opposition party rather than participate in a Mikati-led national unity government. The choice meant that March 14’s rhetoric has shifted to rolling criticism of those running the state, which cannot make March 14 trustworthy at so sensitive a moment in Lebanon.

For many observers, a policy based exclusively on criticism is a sign of political bankruptcy. Stridency cannot substitute for ideas, and yet there is room to advance March 14 aims. Whatever its views of Mikati, the prime minister is willing to strengthen the state’s authority at the expense of Hezbollah, as is Sleiman. If Hezbollah is so keen to deny March 14 a parliamentary majority, that is because the party wants to control the president and prime minister, which is not the case today.

It may be time for March 14 to organize a major gathering to lend new impetus to its political action. In the context of such a forum, the coalition can address internal discontent, formulate a political program for the years ahead, and find its direction. Moreover, it is time to put an end to the bitter wrangling with Mikati, which has not helped March 14 or bolstered the effectiveness of the Lebanese state. A conference would also rally a dejected base and unify March 14 ranks.

Over the years it has become fashionable to condemn March 14. And yet for all its faults the coalition remains a moderate force in Lebanese politics whose ultimate aim is a state open to all sides that is not ruled by men with guns. However, March 14 urgently needs a rebirth, after it allowed the great expectations of 2005 to be stillborn.

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