Thursday, January 16, 2014

Why foes of a unity government are wrong

After alienating many of his comrades last year through his support for the so-called Orthodox election law proposal, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea is making his way back into the hearts of March 14 stalwarts by opposing a government with Hezbollah.

Geagea played the populist card this week, stating at a rally in Maarab for the late Mohammad Shatah, who was killed by a car bomb in December: “The wave of assassinations, bombings and threats on a daily basis and the economic collapse necessitate the formation of a homogenous, effective Cabinet capable of making decisions to restore security and calm and lift Lebanon from this decline.” Geagea also mentioned the start of the trial this week of suspects in Rafik Hariri’s assassination, observing “the era of truth and justice has arrived.”

Geagea’s opposition to a unity government was echoed by other March 14 figures. That Saad Hariri, whose antipathy toward Hezbollah is second to none, has endorsed it suggests that he has Saudi approval. International pressure has mounted to fill the political vacuum in Beirut, amid disturbing signs that its perpetuation may lead to a decisive breakdown in sectarian relations.

Hezbollah’s willingness to compromise, after months of deadlock, suggests that the same impulse may exist on the Iranian side. This is the year that Hezbollah hopes to consolidate its hold on Lebanon – first by replacing President Michel Sleiman with someone more compliant; then by holding parliamentary election on the basis of a law that divides its adversaries in March 14. To advance on both fronts requires a minimal level of political consensus in Lebanon.

For some in March 14, participating in a national-unity government is a way of facilitating Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon. Perhaps, but there really is more to the country than the March 8-March 14 rivalry. The Lebanese face serious economic, social, sectarian and political challenges, and ideological purity aside, they need a government. Geagea may be right that the government will not be harmonious, but that was never going to happen anyway, even when the Lebanese Forces participated in three unity governments after 2005.

As for talk of a neutral government, or better still a government of technocrats, one wonders what supporters of such a project have been smoking. The Mikati government collapsed last year under multiple pressures, despite the backing of a majority in parliament and despite the fact that Hezbollah did everything to keep it in place. Imagine what a neutral government would face – one that has no political clout and whose decisions are bound to arouse opposition from all sides of the political spectrum, its success necessary to no one.

The same goes for technocrats. Since when has technical competence been a prerequisite for public office in Lebanon? That’s unfortunate, but the essence of any government’s power is the ability to implement a program, which is fundamentally political in its redistribution of limited resources. So, unless the politicians are on board (and why should they be when technocrats are effectively denying them the patronage power provided by control over lucrative government ministries?), the whole system tends to gravitate toward deadlock.

Hezbollah may be objectionable as a national partner, not least when several of its members stand accused of participating in the assassination of a former prime minister. But the party and its supporters in the Shiite community cannot be made to suddenly disappear. Lebanon is run inefficiently with Hezbollah, but it can assuredly not be run without it. Accepting this may mean encouraging blackmail, but, once again, 4 million Lebanese cannot put their lives on hold merely to satisfy the ideological consistency of a few.

And March 14 tends to protect its political stakes better in government than outside. If indeed Hezbollah regards 2014 as a crucial year when it hopes to strengthen itself institutionally within the Lebanese system, and in that way ensure that it can retain its weapons, the best way to oppose this is from within the government, not sitting on the sidelines issuing empty statements.

The West’s opening to Iran has been largely viewed in negative terms by March 14, as providing a blank check to Iran to pursue its agenda in the Middle East. But just as likely is that it will also open up possibilities for understandings with Arab countries, since Iranian normalization with the West will not mean very much if it is not accompanied by normalization with the mainly Sunni Arab world.

The Iranians, like the Saudis, see few advantages in sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Iran cannot bludgeon Arab countries into compliance, let alone function properly in a region where sectarian mobilization against Iran and Shiites has become commonplace. Even in Syria, Tehran’s military support for President Bashar Assad has not offered any solutions as to how his regime will reimpose its power against a Sunni majority bitterly opposed to his rule. Sunnis who have sided with Assad realize that the sectarian social contract in Syria has been broken. This means that, at best, the country may be at war for years to come if he remains in office, which will only further drain Iran.

Neither Iran nor Hezbollah has a fast track to resolving the region’s ineluctable complications. The Turkish government learned that lesson long ago, when its Libya and Syria policies backfired; condemning Israel is not enough to retain approval in the Arab world. Iran’s policies in Iraq have provoked rising Sunni opposition to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to the extent that there have been reports that Tehran may soon back a replacement.

Hezbollah is little different. It takes more than intimidation to have one’s way in Lebanon. If March 14 seeks to pursue the battle over Lebanon’s future, it will have to be patient, flexible and above all united. The formation of a new government is a necessity today. At the very least, it will help preserve a country worth fighting over.

No comments: