Thursday, January 9, 2014

Lebanon is hearing the alarm bells

With the alchemists of government formation discussing a new ministerial formula involving March 8, March 14 and the centrists, there is hope that Tammam Salam may soon have a Cabinet to lead.

For months, the so-called 9-9-6 option (nine ministers each for March 8 and March 14 and six for the centrists) has been on the table, but was rejected by Salam and March 14. Now, the idea is to repackage the 9-9-6 formula and call it 8-8-8. Each group would have eight ministers, but March 8 and March 14 would select an additional minister each from the centrist quota. Presto! Lead would be turned into gold and Lebanon would emerge from its vacuum.

If this scheme succeeds, it will have come after a dizzying array of maneuvers and counter-maneuvers, conditions and counter-conditions over a new government, all of which served merely to delay agreement over the 9-9-6 formula pushed by Hezbollah. Not surprisingly, foreign governments with a stake in Lebanon have become increasingly disenchanted and anxious over the paralysis in the country and have made this clear to Lebanese officials.

Foreign ambassadors have reportedly warned March 14 figures that it is necessary to form a government rapidly, since the ability to protect them is very limited. The Belgian foreign minister, Didier Reyners, was in Lebanon last week and explained that international interest in the country was declining, so that if the situation deteriorated further, Lebanon could be on its own. Belgium has troops in UNIFIL, which is why its officials merit added consideration. If the impasse persists, foreign governments will find it increasingly difficult to justify the continued presence of their soldiers in the international force.

Similarly, the recent advances by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Iraq’s Anbar province were a warning shot to the region. While ISIS has suffered setbacks in the past few days in both Iraq and Syria, the prospect of Al-Qaeda extending its sway to Lebanon (especially after ISIS claimed responsibility for the car bomb in the southern suburbs last week) has alarmed everybody.

March 14 has made tactical mistakes in rejecting the 9-9-6 formula outright, and in linking dialogue with Hezbollah to the party’s military withdrawal from Syria. First, what precisely in the 9-9-6 proposal is so unacceptable? Or rather, how can its disadvantages be averted given the realities of power on the ground?

March 14 has opposed the fact that 9-9-6 grants Hezbollah and its allies a blocking third in the government (though March 14 would be entitled to the same veto power), and prevents a two-thirds majority if March 14 and the centrists are in agreement. But even without this blocking third, Hezbollah could very likely have its way on policies it opposes and even bring the government down. The reason is that Salam comes in as a consensual figure, not someone, like Fouad Siniora in 2006-2008, who would go to the line against Hezbollah.

March 14 is understandably reluctant to cede any ground to Hezbollah, especially after the assassination of Mohammad Shatah. But the fact is that governments of national unity were formed after the elimination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, after the election of Michel Sleiman in 2008 and after the 2009 elections, which March 14 won, despite numerous assassinations of March 14 figures and Hezbollah’s military takeover of western Beirut in May 2008.

As for linking dialogue to Hezbollah’s pullout from Syria, that too has created a negative backlash. Many people feel Lebanon should not be held hostage to the situation in another country. This protest sidesteps the fact that Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has imported its war to Lebanon, but there is some truth to it. Given the challenges Lebanon faces today, the country cannot afford a stalemate that will only bring on political and economic collapse.

Sleiman, sensing this mood, has used the threat of unilaterally forming a government with Salam as leverage to unblock the frozen political process. The president knows that a government not approved by Hezbollah, Walid Jumblatt, the Maronite patriarch, Michel Aoun and Nabih Berri has no chance of winning a confidence vote. And he also knows that once this happens the current government will be unable to govern effectively in a caretaker capacity. But Sleiman needs to be hyperactive because, despite his public comments to the contrary, he would welcome an extension of his term after it ends in May.

Hezbollah wants Sleiman out, however, which explains its renewed interest in forming a national-unity government. Otherwise, with the country as polarized as it is, prospects for reaching a consensus over a replacement would be negligible. Moreover, if the party seeks to bring the army commander, Jean Kahwagi, or somewhat more likely Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh, to office, it will need to ensure that it has a two-thirds majority in Parliament first to amend the constitution and allow him, as a Grade One civil servant, to stand.

Lebanon cannot afford a void in the coming months, and fear of one is universal overseas. The Lebanese are getting the point, even if March 14 is worried that it will pay the price in any new order dominated by Hezbollah. But the alternative could be even worse. That is why the opposition must update its rhetoric, agree to a single presidential candidate and reach an accord over a new parliamentary election law for next November, to avoid the election law fiasco of last year.

Ultimately, an American-Iranian rapprochement this year, if it happens, will provide new opportunities for all sides. It may also generate greater sectarian tension, but ultimately none of the regional powers has an interest in proliferating sectarian wars, which could consume them. Lebanon may be losing Western attention these days, but it would be a mistake to let it drift toward ruination.

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