Thursday, February 20, 2014

Toward conflict or concord in Beirut?

According to the new information minister, Ramzi Joreige, President Michel Sleiman is pleased with the government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam, because it reflects the nature of the Lebanese system and was “made in Lebanon.”

The Cabinet certainly reflects the nature of the political and confessional system, for good and evil, but it is far less certain that an agreement became possible because the Lebanese parties alone decided that an 11-month vacuum was intolerable. Clearly, regional governments wanted to calm the volatile Lebanese situation.

That’s reassuring. Since we’re incapable of agreeing between ourselves, let others make us do so. Perhaps that’s the only positive thing in the Salam government, which will have little time to do much before the presidential election in May. But then the government isn’t really here to do more than generate concord and ensure that a successor to Michel Sleiman can be consensually agreed.

Hezbollah’s haste is motivated by the situation in Syria, and the success of President Bashar Assad’s regime in regaining ground in recent months. The party seeks to reflect this by reinforcing its own dominance in Lebanon through the presidential election and parliamentary elections scheduled for November. Most important, it does not want such a project undermined by a breakout of sectarian violence in Lebanon, which is why Hezbollah has sought to contain the consequences of bombings, the latest yesterday, in Shiite areas.

It was with full knowledge of this reality that the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea refused to join a national-unity government. He did not want to appear to be covering for Hezbollah at a time when the party has violated the Baabda agreement by entering into the Syrian conflict, effectively pushing Sunni jihadist groups to take their war to Lebanon, threatening the country as a whole.

But what is most troubling is that Geagea’s attitude, while understandable, reveals a lack of coordination between the different parts of March 14 at a key moment for the country. The Lebanese Forces are understandably suspicious of Hezbollah, but the best way to respond is by staying united with its March 14 partners and preparing for the next phase, namely the formulation of a new election law. If the Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement remain on different wavelengths, Hezbollah and the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, will have no trouble dividing them by putting forward election law proposals over which they disagree.

Hezbollah today has serious political and security challenges to juggle. Whatever the party’s successes in Syria, it is trapped in an open-ended conflict, while virtually every week a bomb is going off in Shiite-majority areas of the country. Hezbollah can control the response for a time, but it is doubtful it can do so indefinitely. These pressures give its adversaries more leeway to press their demands, most recently the naming of March 14 or Sleiman appointees to head the Interior, Defense and Justice ministries.

In this context, internal March 14 disputes are pointless. But something else bothers Geagea, namely that government deadlock was ended through an agreement between Saad Hariri and Michel Aoun. While resentment of Aoun remains high in the Future Movement, some in the Hariri camp feel more should be done to exploit the differences between Hezbollah and Aoun.

For Geagea, this represents a danger, since he has always sought to be the principal Christian interlocutor with the Future Movement. The relationship began fraying when the Lebanese Forces last year backed an election law, the so-called Orthodox proposal, that was opposed by Hariri. Geagea’s calculation was that the proposal, if implemented, would significantly boost his power in Parliament, in that way giving him a bloc able to counterbalance Aoun’s.

Geagea’s strategy may have backfired. By refusing to enter the government, he has ceded ground to the two major Christian political parties – the Free Patriotic Movement and the Kataeb – with which the Lebanese Forces are in competition for Christian votes. And with Hariri and Aoun engaged in a dialogue, Geagea’s relative political value could decline. Aoun, in turn, benefits from maneuvering between Hezbollah and Future, even as both sides will avoid alienating him as they prepare for the parliamentary elections.

Salam’s government will not have an election law to worry about; that headache will likely occupy the government that comes after the presidential election. But in much the same way that Hezbollah sought a government to create the mood allowing Sleiman to be replaced, it may seek to use the new government to lay the groundwork for future harmony over an election law because, as things stand, no alignment can unilaterally impose a law.

Hezbollah will be weighing its domestic behavior against regional developments. If the Syrian rebels, who are being trained by the Americans and receiving American and Gulf Arab money and more advanced weapons, mount an offensive in spring against Damascus, the party will find itself in the forefront of the battle. This could impel Hezbollah to freeze domestic cooperation pending a clearer outcome. At the same time, Hezbollah will have to measure how this affects sectarian relations, which the party does not want to see deteriorate.

Hezbollah will also await the result of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. It will try to exploit any breakthrough to consolidate its position. But with Syria increasingly imposing itself on the United States and regional actors, nuclear matters may be pushed to the back burner, even if Tehran will have to balance the gains from a nuclear deal against the economic crisis at home, made worse by Iran’s costly commitment to the Assad regime.

Michel Sleiman may well believe that the Salam government was made in Lebanon. But wherever it was really made, it is the events in the region that will ultimately decide whether it breaks or not.

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