Friday, January 24, 2014

Divided we fall - The Geagea-Hariri rift threatens to grow

There is an untranslatable phrase in French that sums up well the uncompromising position of the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea toward a new government: “Il dit juste, mais pas vrai.”

What it means, roughly, is that Geagea, in his justifications for not joining a new national-unity government, is correct; but overall, in its implications, what he says is faulty, promising major problems ahead. If Geagea persists in his opposition, the likelihood is that March 14 will enter the crucial stages of the presidential and parliamentary elections divided, undermining the aims of their political alliance.

Geagea’s position is understandable to an extent. With unidentified drones flying over his residence and with Saad Hariri having met 10 days ago with Michel Aoun in Paris, the Lebanese Forces leader is feeling isolated. In Lebanon, isolation is more than a state of mind; it can represent an anteroom to assassination, as anyone who recalls the period predating Rafiq Hariri’s killing will remember.

On the matter of principle, too, Geagea can legitimately say that he has often stuck to his positions when others were willing to compromise. Then again, compromise in politics is frequently necessary, as Geagea himself has shown in the past. In the three national-unity governments formed in 2005, 2008, and 2009, the Lebanese Forces named ministers, though it was plain that Hezbollah had been involved in outrageous actions similar to those which Geagea is denouncing today. And two of those governments were established after the party’s military takeover of western Beirut, a reckless act that could well have sparked a new Lebanese civil war.

The stakes today, however, are more important than political consistency. When Hezbollah agreed to form a government on the basis of an 8-8-8 formula, and Saad Hariri approved, two things should have been clear to Geagea: that Iran and Saudi Arabia gave a green light to their local allies to go ahead with a government, mainly to contain Sunni-Shiite tensions in Lebanon; and that Hezbollah would integrate this relative concession into its political strategy.  

It is the view of the Lebanese Forces that Hezbollah is weakened today, mainly because of its open-ended involvement in Syria, and that this must be taken advantage of. To an extent that’s true, and it explains why Hariri has refused to give in to the party’s insistence that the Army-People-Resistance formulation be included in the next government’s policy statement.

But more broadly, Hezbollah’s strength when it comes to the government is not based solely on its weapons. It derives from the fact that the party speaks, to a large extent, for one of Lebanon’s major communities. Forming a government against Hezbollah and the Shiites, as Geagea has suggested in backing a neutral cabinet, is no less misguided than was Hezbollah’s unconcern for Sunni preferences when it brought down the Hariri government in 2011. So misguided, in fact, that the subsequent Miqati government never gained Sunni legitimacy, and ultimately collapsed as a consequence.

A neutral government, even one accepted by all, would not be able to adequately contain Lebanon’s contradictions, so what if such a government failed to win a confidence vote in parliament, as is likely, and is actively opposed by several of the country’s leading political forces? A neutral government, though desirable in theory, is simply not going to succeed in stabilizing Lebanon, which currently faces a significant number of overwhelming challenges.

As important are the tactical repercussions of allowing a Lebanese Forces-Future Movement split over the government. March 14 realizes that Hezbollah’s support for a cabinet is designed to advance the party’s political agenda this year. Without a unity government, Lebanon will arrive at the presidential election divided and unable to forge any consensus over a successor to Michel Suleiman, whom Hezbollah wants to replace with a more pliable president.

Hezbollah also probably intends to go through with parliamentary elections next November. Once it has a president it favors, it can then move to guarantee a majority in parliament. This would allow it to name the next parliament speaker and play a central role in appointing a new prime minister and forming a government.

But to get a parliamentary majority, Hezbollah needs to secure passage of an election law to its advantage. Given the rifts last year within March 14 over such a law, with Geagea and the Kataeb behind the Orthodox proposal, Hezbollah sees an opportunity to exploit those differences. However, securing a law that will protect Walid Jumblatt’s electoral interests, and those of Aoun, will not be easy. Both prefer the 1960 law (though Aoun officially opposes it, because Christian public opinion does), which would likely bring in a new parliament similar to the one elected in 2009.

Even if the party backs the 1960 law, it could probably rely on Jumblatt to obtain a parliamentary and government majority. This would allow the Druze leader to continue to hold the center, playing March 8 and March 14 against one another, to his own benefit.

As the Lebanese Forces and Future prepare for the months ahead, they gain nothing by allowing their disagreement to persist, especially over the formation of a government that many Lebanese want. If their rift widens, this will handicap them in the lead-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections, and bring about the very outcome Geagea opposes: a tightening of Hezbollah’s hold over Lebanon.

To waste political energy over a temporary new government is far less useful than remaining united to counter Hezbollah’s projects further on in the year. And if Geagea prefers to obstruct any cooperation with the party, then he must be prepared to persuade the Lebanese, and with them a very worried international community, that perpetuation of the debilitating vacuum in Beirut is good for Lebanon.  

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