Thursday, May 23, 2013

March 14 drifts away from the state

From the start of the debate over a new election law months ago, Hezbollah had a strategic objective, which it defined as a consequence of the fighting in Syria. The party’s overriding aim in the event of the decisive erosion or collapse of President Bashar Assad’s regime was to ensure that any law would guarantee Hezbollah and its allies a majority in parliament, or at least deny one to March 14.

Unfortunately, the reaction of disparate forces in March 14 was not to focus on what Hezbollah sought to achieve, but to satisfy their own parochial interests, accelerating the breakup of the opposition. Hence, the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb, who realized that the 1960 law would again win them only small parliamentary blocs, supported an Orthodox proposal that would have expanded their representation in parliament, but also have likely ensured that March 8 won a majority.

Geagea has since reversed himself on the Orthodox proposal. That’s commendable, for the law would not only have been bad for Lebanon’s national unity (with all the caveats in that idea), but also for Christians, who would have seen their divisions institutionalized.

Geagea’s about-face was justified by the fact that the Orthodox proposal could not have passed in parliament. That’s perhaps true, but the law he ended up supporting, namely a hybrid law, had very little chance of being approved either. And the systematic undermining of the 1960 law by most Christian politicians only ensured that no election law would ever apply. This leaves Lebanon on the threshold of a prolonged political vacuum, without a new parliament and with Tammam Salam seemingly unable to form a government.

This void at the top may have a serious impact on the armed forces, many of whose senior officers, including the commander, Jean Kahwagi, have either retired or are slated to retire this year. Without an effective government in place, replacing these officers will be delayed, at a time of great political tension. All those who rejected the 1960 law outright, when they could have said it would apply in the absence of any agreed alternative, have left Lebanon dangling.

The Lebanese Forces have reacted with anger against those making this claim. Their response has been to defend the need to ameliorate Christian representativeness. No one is suggesting that this is not important (even if it became clear that the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb were preoccupied mainly with their own representativeness), but they should have looked at the bigger picture, the same picture that Hezbollah, for our misfortune and similarly opposed to the 1960 law, never abandoned.

That picture is the control of the Lebanese state, its government, president, parliament, the armed forces and security agencies. Today March 14 is no longer advancing on that front. Instead, its main Sunni component, the Future Movement, has seen its ties with the Lebanese Forces deteriorate thanks to disagreement over the Orthodox proposal. One can fault Geagea, but it’s equally true that Future failed to adequately gauge Christian dissatisfaction, which would have allowed March 14 to devise a consensual approach to the election law.

The loss of momentum in March 14 began some time ago, with the defection of Walid Jumblatt the first and most severe of its setbacks. The absence of Saad Hariri, whatever its cause, has little helped the situation. And the discord generated by the election law has completed the transformation of the coalition emerging from the 2005 emancipation movement into a shadow of its former self.

This steady decline was most powerfully reflected in the elections at the Order of Physicians last weekend, While one should not go too far in reading March 8-March 14 dynamics into the process, since other factors were at play, the reality is that the outcome nevertheless confirmed in the mind of the public how weak March 14 had become.

This would not really matter if Lebanon’s identity and future were not at stake. March 14 once set itself up as a defender of the state. That mantra disappeared during the mandate of Najib Mikati, when the prime minister became a favorite target of March 14. Perhaps this was explicable, in that March 14 could not applaud a state dominated by Hezbollah and its allies. But in the process confidence in the state itself suffered, and March 14 lost its bearings and its cohesiveness.

The conflict in Syria further complicated the situation for March 14. The revolt against the Assad regime unleashed political forces that from the beginning threatened to engulf Lebanon. Hezbollah’s direct participation in the fighting took these risks to a higher level. The imperative for March 14 in this context was to help secure the stability of the state and do what it could to prevent Lebanese society from going down the path to civil war. That is not to say that the coalition should stay silent about Hezbollah’s actions, but rather that it should keep its eye on safeguarding peace in a state that March 14 intends (or must intend) to take over again one day.

This is impossible, some will respond, because of Hezbollah’s operations in Syria. No one can justify the party’s participation in the Assad regime’s repression, but did we ever expect it to behave otherwise? The Lebanese can wish the Syrian revolution the very best, but not adopt measures to endanger civil peace at home. And if Hezbollah ignores the impact on civil peace, then March 14 must exploit its shortcoming to win back levers in the state, without falling into the trap of sectarian strife. March 14 has no convincing project other than the state. It should not surrender it to Hezbollah.

No comments: