Thursday, March 6, 2014

Hezbollah’s presidential headaches grow

The recent denigration of President Michel Sleiman by Ibrahim Amin, the editor of Al-Akhbar, is part of Hezbollah’s larger fight over the presidency. As a consequence, the justice minister, Ashraf Rifi, has taken legal action, accusing Amin of “defaming” the president and the prestige of the presidency.We eagerly await the day when that idiotic accusation will be deleted from the legal books. Amin’s newspaper has often adopted highly questionable journalistic tactics, but for Rifi to have begun his term in office with a decision that could very easily be spun into an attack against free expression was a mistake.

In an article last week, Amin was highly critical of Sleiman’s recent comments at Kaslik University, in which he called on the political parties to abandon “rigid equations” that were delaying agreement over the policy statement of the Salam government. In place of the people-Army-resistance triad, the president offered an alternative: “the land-the people-common values.” Hezbollah reacted violently to his speech, and Amin was enrolled to add bite to the counterattack.

Some viewed Sleiman’s remarks as an underhanded way of torpedoing an agreement over a Cabinet statement. Reportedly, Prime Minister Tammam Salam was unhappy. If the government cannot adopt a statement, the argument goes, Sleiman would be in a better position to extend his term come May, on the grounds that Lebanon cannot allow a void both in the government and the presidency.

The main purpose of the new government, namely to create a constructive atmosphere allowing for a consensus around a new president, may be quickly evaporating. Unless something gives in the coming days, we won’t have a Cabinet statement, and the government will then function in a caretaker capacity. And if ministers cannot reach a compromise over a Cabinet statement today, their parties are unlikely to agree over a president in May – let alone over the Cabinet statement of the next government if a presidential election takes place.

What has been flagrant in the past year is how destabilized Hezbollah has been by Sleiman’s criticisms. The president has only public statements in his scabbard, but Hezbollah has reacted with undue aggressiveness, suggesting that any break with the unanimity it once imposed over its weapons has become worrisome to the party.

Hezbollah is not pleased that two of the three top posts in the state are held by individuals who do not share the party’s vision or ideology. Even in the days after the so-called Cedar Revolution in 2005, Hezbollah still benefited from a sympathetic president and speaker of parliament, using this to block all efforts by the March 14 coalition to eat away at the props of the party’s political power.

While Hezbollah does not want a vacuum, its sense of vulnerability suggests that it would prefer one if it cannot guarantee control over a president, and if the Salam government seeks to challenge what the party views as non-negotiable, namely a justification for its weapons. Better no president or government unless both serve to reinforce what Hezbollah considers vital for its political and military survival.

What is risky in this proposition is that domestic stability is as important to the party as self-protection. If Lebanon were to descend into violence, particularly sectarian violence, Hezbollah could lose everything it has spent two decades building up. Any illusion that the party can dominate Lebanon militarily should have been dispelled by its performance in Syria. While Hezbollah has done well in some places, it has taken heavy casualties in others. It’s easier to fire at Israel from afar than to embark on a conflict in mixed areas, where the costs are bound to be high and there can be no clear victories.

In Hezbollah’s favor, Sleiman has not been able to draw enough Christians away from the party to pose a threat. For as long as Michel Aoun and his followers regard Sleiman as a rival, Hezbollah will retain the initiative. Christians often lament their divisions, but the reality is that their petty disputes have been among the most useful developments allowing Hezbollah to advance its agenda.

Watch as the year progresses and steps are taken to hold parliamentary elections next November. The underlying tensions between the Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement suggest that, unless the two agree to a compromise election law proposal, Hezbollah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri will use the debate over such a law to divide their opponents, as they did last year.

But Hezbollah is right not to be reassured about what lies ahead. The Syrian conflict will continue, and is likely to escalate further in spring, when the rebels are said to be preparing a southern offensive. The Shiite community, like all Lebanese, is suffering greatly from a combination of systematic bombings and economic duress. Amid all this, that the party and its mouthpieces should be focusing on statements by Sleiman suggests there is considerable uneasiness over Hezbollah’s ability to enforce compliance within Lebanon.

What Hezbollah has not considered is that whoever becomes president will have a natural tendency to challenge the party. The party’s very existence represents a daily contradiction of the state and its unity, whose prime representative is the president. Even if a successor to Sleiman is found, this reality will persist.

Any president, by definition, only gains by appealing to all sides of the political spectrum, and by not curtailing the authority of the state, hence his own. That applies as much to Sleiman as to Aoun, were he to enter the presidential palace. In the end the incompatibility between the state and Hezbollah will endure, whatever the party does.

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