Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Accountability remains core to the Arab Spring

At the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011, one thing was immediately apparent. If the Arab societies in turmoil failed to make the security and military institutions more accountable, their revolutions would probably fail. What we have seen since confirms this.

In countries such as Libya and Syria, separate, but related, dynamics were at play. The collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya showed not so much the risks from a lack of accountability, but the catastrophe that could follow from too sudden a security void, when no provisions had been made for a transition to a more stable order.

In Syria, the supporters of Bashar Al Assad realised early on that the key to his survival was to maintain unity in the security organisations that had sustained his rule for years. Even as the Syrian army began crumbling from deaths and desertions, the security hierarchy managed to remain more or less unified, leaving the core of the regime intact.

In Egypt, the picture was more complicated. When the revolt against the regime of Hosni Mubarak happened, it was primarily directed against the security apparatus controlled by the interior ministry. The army was viewed by the population as a counterweight to it, an astute reading of a situation that had developed for some four decades in Egypt.

In a fascinating book titled Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt, the Egyptian sociologist Hazem Kandil offered a historical reading of the relationship between Egypt’s security organs – in particular the relationship between the political leadership and the army, and between the army and the civilian security forces of the interior ministry.

For Mr Kandil much can be understood about Egypt’s post-1952 revolution period from examining the dynamics between these institutions. Just as Gamal Abdel Nasser established Arab Socialist Union, a political party, as a counterweight to the power of the military, then under the control of his friend and rival Abdel Hakim Amer, later both Anwar Sadat and Mr Mubarak built up the interior ministry’s security apparatus to contain the army.

The Egyptians’ disgust with Mohammed Morsi’s incompetence in 2013 led to massive demonstrations directed against him, and a call for the army to remove him from office. The military obliged, marking, as Mr Kandil might say, a return to the military’s political dominance. This was consolidated by Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s election as president in 2014 and is being done further through the current parliamentary elections.

In all these cases it was the actions, or omissions, of the security-military apparatus that defined the ultimate outcome of the uprisings. Only in Tunisia, where the military has been relatively small, have the security organs been less decisive in shaping political developments. Yet even there, the passage of an antiterrorism law last July, following the Bardo and Sousse attacks, raised worries the legislation might restrict liberties.

The tremendous power of security and military institutions – to which we can frequently add the judiciary – has largely defined the postcolonial Arab world. There are a number of reasons for this, not least that these institutions have accumulated vast power mainly to guarantee regime survival.

There is also the fact that security organs often reflected social realities in the postcolonial phase. Particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, they were instruments of social promotion for those on the social periphery. This, coupled with the often malignant nature of military and security politics, made for institutions far less turned towards the protection of society at large than towards self-preservation and consolidation.

The Libyan and Syrian regimes understood the implications of what they did in 2011 when they provoked civil wars to retain power once their populations rose up against them. They saw that war would not only serve to heighten solidarity within the regime’s ranks by increasing polarisation; but also that as security broke down the ensuing vacuum would mean chaos, making the regimes appear almost palatable in contrast.

That tactic failed in Libya, but may have succeeded in Syria. The international focus on ISIL has completely reversed the outlook towards the Assad regime, to the extent that American officials have admitted that were it to collapse too quickly, jihadist groups might gain. Needless to say the US fell for the oldest trick in the book of security regimes: portraying themselves as better alternatives to the calamities they create.

Post-revolutionary societies aspire to stability after a period of upheaval. Security institutions, on the contrary, require endless tension and threats to justify their existence and the rules they enforce. That is why for revolution to succeed, this contradiction between the aims of both sides must, first, be resolved.

In democracies there are means of accountability to keep the security bodies in line. But in much of the region proper institutions of accountability simply do not exist, allowing the instruments of repression to push their advantage. This dilemma will continue to profoundly define the Arab world.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Bear trap?

It’s remarkable that many have reacted to the Russian military intervention in Syria as if it were preordained that it would decisively change the dynamics of conflict there.

The European foreign affairs head, Federica Mogherini, described the Russian move as a “game-changer” earlier this week, while pro-Hezbollah journalists in Lebanon have gone into the details of how Russian-Iranian collaboration is about to shift the military balance in northern Syria.

No doubt the Russian deployment to Syria is a major development in that unhappiest of countries, but is it really the beginning of the end game — at least when it comes to the dynamics of the war? Until now Russia has merely introduced better weapons, while steadfastly refusing to send ground forces that could, potentially, shift the tide. Indeed, what seems inevitable is that the Russians will work in tandem with Iranian troops and pro-Iranian militias, which have been involved in Syria since at least 2013. This may provide tactical advantages in places, but is it really enough to be conclusive?

Not likely. Military action usually invites a contrary reaction to neutralize it, and the Russian deployment has spurred Bashar Assad’s enemies to send many more weapons to the rebels. Of note is that the Obama administration has dispatched new quantities of a particularly effective weapon, namely TOW anti-tank missiles. Reports from last week suggest the TOWs were behind at least two “tank massacres,” as the rebels called them.

TOWs also represent a politically convenient advantage in that they skirt the situation that existed in Afghanistan during the 1980s, when American Stinger anti-aircraft missiles were given to the Mujahideen to shoot down Russian aircraft. The TOWs, which were being used in Syria before the Russians entered, are destroying Syrian armor and vehicles, and therefore do not represent a direct use of American weapons against Russia. They only help undermine Moscow’s ally, allowing the Obama administration to say, albeit somewhat lamely, that Syria is not a proxy war between the United States and Russia.

But beyond that, what can the Russians do? Their recent use of cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea seemed more a public display of strength than anything else. Usually such weapons are used against integrated air defenses or other major military targets, not against villages that can be more accurately bombed from the air or land. Amid statements from US officials that some of the missiles (perhaps four) landed in Iran, the value of the weapons in a conflict like Syria’s may be relatively limited.

Russian success will, to a great extent, be dependent on the success of its allies engaged on the ground. There have been reports that Russia has taken over the running of the war in Syria from the regime’s side, at Iran’s expense. It has also sought the dissolution of the National Defense Forces, the militia Iran helped establish, and its integration into the army.

That may be true, but as the Iranians showed America in Iraq in recent months, they have many means in Syria to resist developments that may threaten their interests. Russia and Iran are collaborating, mainly because they need each other. But measures that may significantly increase the power of one at the expense of the other will be harder to push through.

That is why for as long as Iran plays a major role in conducting ground operations, the latitude of Russia to impose its agenda and determine military outcomes may be relatively limited. A constant game of compromise between Moscow and Tehran could also create openings allowing the rebels to resist more successfully in certain places. The complex nature of the Syrian conflict and of the alliances involved make it difficult to accept today that the Russian deployment is a definitive game-changer.

The Russians have a strategy and a very clear sense of what they want to achieve in Syria. But ironically this clarity has imposed some clarity on the American side, where there was none. Barack Obama, who has spent nearly five years avoiding Syria, has taken a beating lately as one commentary after the other has affirmed that the president’s passivity toward the country virtually invited the Russian military intervention. Obama may not much care about the suffering of the Syrian people, but he does care about his legacy, and doesn’t want to be seen as the man who delivered the Middle East to Moscow on a silver plate.

A great deal can be said that is negative about the United States at present. But it’s not wise for Vladimir Putin to provoke the Americans, given Russia’s many vulnerabilities. And there is no reason why the political climate in Syria should be any more hospitable to Russia than it has been to the many regional states that have been struggling with the Syrian nightmare.

Indeed, so inhospitable is Syria that some conspiracy theorists have concluded that Obama drew Russia into the conflict to undermine Putin. That may be overestimating the American president’s lucidity, so shocking has been his lack of foresight on Syria, but it does acknowledge Russia’s very real challenges.

Putin is no indomitable Machiavelli. He has rushed into Syria with great self-confidence. While one cannot underestimate the Russians, so well do they know Syria and its dangers, to assume it’s all finished there is premature. As the ground war develops, the complications will become more daunting, the difficulties more numerous. A game-changer does not mean game over.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Aoun’s playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship

It was of questionable judgement for Michel Aoun to organise a triumphalist political rally last Sunday near Lebanon’s presidential palace in the Beirut suburb of Baabda. A quarter of a century ago, the palace was the site of Mr Aoun’s ignominious defeat at the hands of Syria’s military, from whom he fled to the safety of the French embassy.

Much has changed since then. Mr Aoun is now politically allied with the Syrian regime and Hizbollah. In 1989, as commander of the army and head of a military government, Mr Aoun embarked on a so-called “war of liberation” to force Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon. He failed when, on October 13, 1990, the Syrians bombed him out of the presidential palace.

And yet some things have not changed. Just as Mr Aoun sought to manipulate the anti-Syrian rallies of 1989-90 to bring about his election as president of Lebanon, so too, last weekend, did he view his march in Baabda as leverage to be elected.

This determination has effectively blocked the Lebanese political system since May 2014. Unless guaranteed of winning the vote beforehand, Mr Aoun has prevented a quorum in parliament to elect a new president. He has also hindered cabinet work, arguing that as the Maronite Christian presidency is vacant, Christian ministers collectively represent him, therefore all government decisions must be taken by unanimity.

Mr Aoun’s obstructionism notwithstanding, he has been supported in his efforts by Hizbollah, which has publicly said it backs him for the presidency. While some have argued the party is leading Mr Aoun on in pursuit of its own agenda, the reality is more nuanced. Hizbollah not only regards Mr Aoun as a politician who will defend its interests, it may well believe he will work to amend the constitution to the Shias’ advantage.

Both Hizbollah and Mr Aoun feel now is the time to benefit from the recent nuclear accord with Iran. They have, rightly, interpreted the deal as a boost for the Islamic Republic, shifting the balance of power in the region to its benefit. Therefore, they believe, this balance must be reflected in Lebanon through a pro-Hizbollah president and, very probably, a constitutional order that can secure and expand Shia gains.

While Hizbollah has not openly defined its aims, party officials have long talked about an overhaul of the sectarian political system. According to Lebanon’s 1989 constitution, agreed in the Saudi resort of Taif, representation in parliament, the government and the civil service is 50-50 between Christians and Muslims.

However, some Shia politicians have indicated that Hizbollah wants to put in place a system of thirds: a third for the Shia, a third for Sunnis and a third for Maronite Christians, with smaller communities receiving shares within this framework.

Mr Aoun appears to agree with this. While Christians would lose representation through such a scheme, the rationale of Mr Aoun and his son-in-law, foreign minister Gebran Bassil, is that many Christian parliamentarians and ministers are already appointed or brought to office by Muslim politicians, therefore the reduction in representation would not be a net loss for communal influence.

More important, to Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil, a structural majority of the Christians who back him and Shia would maintain Sunnis at a permanent disadvantage. This reflects their innate fear of Sunnis, whom they regard as oppressors of regional minorities. The crude judgement has gained traction as the war in Syria has allowed jihadi groups to proliferate. It also explains Mr Aoun’s sympathy for Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

While Mr Aoun is over 80, Mr Bassil’s recent elevation to the post of president of the Free Patriotic Movement, Mr Aoun’s political party, opens up new possibilities for Hizbollah. Mr Aoun recently averted an FPM election he knew Mr Bassil would lose and, instead, imposed his victory undemocratically. Left unsaid is that if Mr Aoun were to die before becoming president, Hizbollah would probably shift its support to Mr Bassil.

It has been a strange path for Mr Aoun. He has been most responsible for perpetuating the debilitating political vacuum since May 2014. While claiming to defend Lebanese sovereignty, he has partnered with a party, Hizbollah, that has created a state-within-a-state in Lebanon.

While purporting to be above sectarian calculations, Mr Aoun has behaved in the most narrowly sectarian of ways, indifferent to the polarisation he has exacerbated, greatly harming Christian-Sunni relations in particular. Indeed, Sunni rejection of him, both in Lebanon and among the Sunni-majority Arab states, is now Mr Aoun’s greatest barrier to getting elected.

Mr Aoun’s brinkmanship will continue and he will not relent until he is voted into office. Yet Mr Aoun’s red lines are defined by Hizbollah, which will back him to the hilt, but does not want Lebanon to be dangerously destabilised as a consequence. However, as Mr Aoun showed in 1990, in pursuit of the presidency, destructive inconsistency is no vice.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Apocalypse soon? - In this case bend to Aoun’s and Hezbollah’s blackmail

There you have it. Lebanon is again on the edge of the abyss, politicians warning of apocalypse if there is no agreement over reviving the government and facilitating the making of decisions.

But the real problem, beyond day-to-day politics, is that the motor of the Lebanese political system, whose lubricant was always consensus, has broken down. Today, everything has become a source of polarization and brinksmanship, so that the different political groups, each pursuing their own agenda, have a vested interest in going to the absolute limits of their action.

One can speculate about the cause of this. No doubt a major factor in the past decade has been the behavior of Hezbollah, which has the military power to impose its will, and no commitment to the survival of the Lebanese political system, toward which it was always fundamentally hostile. On top of that, in 2005 when the Syrians were forced to withdraw from Lebanon, the party found itself without a powerful protector and decided, for itself and its Iranian patron, that it had to embark on a permanent coup to shape the bend its way.

Hezbollah had the tactical acumen to ally itself with Michel Aoun, realizing that the general was obsessively committed to becoming president. It has exploited his craving in two ways: by encouraging Aoun to block the political system when necessary, suggesting to him that his maximalism would pay dividends; and, through that, building up its relationship with a substantial share of the Christian community, in that way reinforcing itself with regard to the Sunnis, Hezbollah’s principal worry.

Since May of last year Hezbollah has used this method to ensure that the country has no president. It has encouraged Aoun to boycott parliamentary sessions to elect a president, while time and again party officials, above all Hassan Nasrallah, have hindered progress by saying Aoun remains their candidate. In other words, it’s either Aoun or continued deadlock.

Complicating matters have been regional developments. The nuclear deal with Iran and the Russian intervention in Syria have given new vitality to Hezbollah, whose main aim today is to see to it that the political system in Lebanon reflects the balance of power in the region. If America is looking to normalize with Iran and Bashar Assad has a better chance of surviving politically, then the party wants to ensure that Lebanon has a president who is acceptable to Hezbollah, Iran and the Assad regime. That is where we are at the moment.

Against them all stands a Sunni community in disarray. Its leader has been in voluntary exile since 2011, while its regional sponsors, above all Saudi Arabia, have largely left the Sunnis to their own devices. This has been a red cape to the Hezbollah bull, the party seeing a large opening to impose its writ.

In this broad framework, the compromise solution to revitalize the government, namely the promotion of Chamel Roukoz (as well as other officers) is a useful stopgap measure. The idea is that Roukoz’s elevation would allow a package deal, one of the consequences of which would be agreement over a mechanism pushing Aoun to end his obstruction of the government.

Some have already declared the compromise dead, but the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt are soldiering on, so to speak. There is a short cut-off point, with Roukoz scheduled to retire on 15 October. So unless a decision is reached by then, Lebanon may enter a political void in which none of the state institutions are functioning.

Certainly, this fear is part of the game of brinksmanship. But in Lebanon these days brinksmanship usually leads beyond the brink, and this time the dangers are worrisome.

Economically, Lebanon did not grow in the past year, with senior financial officials saying GDP growth was zero. This is alarming as the economic backbone of the country is the banking system, built on vast foreign currency reserves. For now reserves are high, but unless they expand by a certain percentage each year, banks become vulnerable. And with no growth and no government, the risk is real that Lebanon may enter a financial dark zone.

Promoting Roukoz poses problems for the military hierarchy. It is also opposed by the defense minister and the Consultative Gathering founded by former President Michel Suleiman. They may even be right if we apply a strictly institutional approach.

However, their argument ignores what may happen to the country if no agreement is reached. They might argue that it is not up to them to bend to Aoun’s and Hezbollah’s blackmail. Perhaps, but they joined a government in 2014 that many at the time knew would fill the long vacuum both were expected to create by not electing a president. In other words they covered then for what was Hezbollah’s and Aoun’s impending blackmail.

Nor has their stance on isolating the military from politics always been respected. In 2008 a majority voted Suleiman into office, though one member of the Consultative Gathering, Boutros Harb, abstained, considering it unconstitutional.

Harb would answer that Suleiman’s election and Roukoz’s appointment are different issues. The first is a political and constitutional matter, while the second involves the internal rules of the army. Perhaps, but the nuance is lost on most Lebanese. Suleiman’s promotion as army commander was itself controversial in the military, pushed as it was by Syria, so the sharp line between what is political and what is strictly military has been violated before with the politicians’ approval.

Lebanon is in extraordinary circumstances today. This may not be a good argument for purists, but a collapse of the political system is the worst alternative of all. If Roukoz is the key to a deal, use him. Otherwise the door to a solution may remain permanently closed and we will regret this opportunity lost.   

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Iran and Russia are united despite their differences

Russia has intervened militarily in Syria to prop up Bashar Al Assad’s regime. However, something more profound is occurring in the Middle East. The Russians, with Iran, evidently aim to rewrite power relationships in the region to profit from Washington’s disengagement and ultimately end more than four decades of American domination.

Barack Obama’s commitment to a nuclear deal with Iran was an eye-opener. In showing that the US was eager to normalise relations with Iran after more than 35 years of hostility, Mr Obama also revealed his willingness to accept Iran as a major regional player at the same time as the US was reducing its own regional footprint, alarming its traditional allies.

This attitude fits neatly into the White House’s vision for the region. Mr Obama sees few strategic rewards in the US continuing to be the sole major player in the Middle East. He wants to disengage, leaving behind a balance between the main countries so they can regulate their affairs.

This may appeal to political science students at the University of Chicago, but the void America has created has wreaked havoc in a region that has long relied on Washington to maintain a political equilibrium. Russia and Iran seek to replace what America has surrendered with a new order reflecting their own interests.

Much has been said about Vladimir Putin’s desire to take Russia back to the time of the Soviet Union. But the Russian president is not into nostalgia. Rather, as a true realist, facing difficulties at home, Mr Putin strives to enhance his country’s power abroad and show prospective Arab allies that Russia, unlike America, will intervene to preserve its rule and the status quo.

In the past year, Russia has reinforced its relations with Egypt, once a pillar of American authority in the region. Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s ties with the US president have been strained by Mr Obama’s quick abandonment of an old ally, Hosni Mubarak, in 2011 and Washington’s subsequent opposition to the military intervention that removed Mohammed Morsi.

Mr Obama never made any effort to mend the rift with Cairo, visiting Egypt only once, during his first year in office. The Russians, on the contrary, supported Mr El Sisi early on and he and Mr Putin have met several times

Mr Putin has also opened a channel to the Saudis, another of America’s principal allies. While the relationship is fraught with tensions, especially over Syria, the Saudis, too, see benefits in maintaining ties with both Moscow and Washington.

In the autumn, King Salman is scheduled to visit Russia. Mr Putin knows he may never replace America’s sway in Riyadh. However, as he expands Russian regional power, friendly relations with the Saudis are imperative.

And in Iraq recently, the Russians established a “security centre” with the Iraqis, Iranians and Syrians. The aim, according to the Russian representative in the centre, is to coordinate and exchange information to fight ISIL, and provide this to the military staffs in each country. Russian intervention has been welcomed by Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi.

But the possibilities go well beyond ISIL, with some viewing the project as a counterweight to American efforts to bolster a Sunni anti-ISIL force. Yet Mr Obama’s indecision was again on display last week when the US military suddenly suspended its activities against ISIL in Anbar province. The excuse given was so ludicrous (the hot weather) that no one could avoid linking it to the expanding Russian presence in Iraq.

At the heart of the changes in the region is the Russian-Iranian relationship. While Moscow and Tehran have different priorities, they are united in wanting the Americans gone, and both have a stake in Mr Al Assad’s political survival. Parenthetically, this collaboration also ensures that the nuclear deal with Iran will not marginalise Russia. As a new Middle East takes shape, Moscow wants its place.

While Mr Obama has wound down America’s involvement in the Arab world, other states – Russia, Iran and Turkey above all – have sought to revive previous statuses as regional powerhouses. Not surprisingly, the struggle for Syria, control over which was always a key for supremacy in the Levant, has meant these revivalist impulses have clashed.

What is interesting is that Iran and Russia, both aware of their limitations in a predominantly Sunni Arab world, have opted to work together. Syria will be a major test of their cooperation, as will Iraq. But both have a long way to go before they can successfully impose a new regional order. The Middle East has been notoriously destructive to the hubris of outsiders.

Strangely, only the United States was able to play a leading role for an extended period of time. However, Mr Obama has other plans. He wants to revitalise America by avoiding the Middle East. Mr Putin is wagering the Middle East can make Russia more relevant.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Power cut

Too often the notion of political realism is simply reduced to amorality, deriving from a notion that states pursue their interests irrespective of what this says about moral values.

Even before he became president, Barack Obama made clear that he would act as a political realist in America’s foreign affairs. His aim would not be to pursue chimeras such as democratization, as George W. Bush had. He would reorient American priorities to regions of the world that mattered to America, pragmatically accept the country’s limitations overseas, and stray away from situations that might entangle America in costly involvement bringing few tangible benefits.

But even the most hardened neoconservative would not profoundly disagree with much of this. After all, which administration has not sought to advance American interests? Where the two visions differ, however, is in the use of power, particularly military power. Obama has been a reluctant warrior, even if he has not hesitated to use other military means, such as drones, that do not risk American lives.

But for all that, has Obama been a successful realist? Today in Syria the president is in a position to put his ideas to the test. For almost five years he has been a realist only in his readiness to ignore the widespread suffering in the country, to depict the conflict there in dishonest ways in order to justify American inaction, and to mislead repeatedly about his intentions. Other than that, Obama has been an absolutely abysmal realist.

A classic formulation of realism in international affairs is found in the first sentence of Hans J. Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations, a realist bible for generations of college students. “International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power,” wrote Morgenthau, before going on to define power as “man’s control over the minds and actions of other men.”

To Morgenthau, power is not military power, but rather a “psychological relation” between those exercising power and those over whom it is exercised. “It gives the former control over certain actions of the latter through the influence which the former exert over the latter’s minds.”

Today, Russia is doing a full-court press in the Middle East to fill the large empty spaces left by the United States. In the regional struggle for power Obama is nowhere to be seen. Russia is intervening in Syria, it is now coordinating with Iran, Iraq and Syria through a “security center” established in Baghdad, and it has strengthened its ties with the Egyptian regime. That is not to say the Russians will ultimately succeed. Their plans are full of potential minefields, but they are acting as old-line realists in pursuing power at the expense of their main global adversary.

Should this matter? Many a US official will say that the Middle East no longer has the same importance to America that it once did. If the Russians want to play a major role there, let them. Perhaps, but that is the language of retrenchment, not realism.

And it’s not as if doing nothing has no political cost. The refugee crisis in Europe, the rising terrorism threat, the fate of old American allies such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, not to mention Israel, have all been affected by regional developments. What happens in the region cannot simply be tossed off as irrelevant. Under Obama, America’s regional alliance system in the past seven years has virtually collapsed, with two countries, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, having largely lost faith in the United States and embarking on independent paths. So much for Obama’s ability to exert influence over their leaders’ minds.

Nor can this situation be, persuasively, depicted as being in America’s interests. Surrendering, through lack of commitment, what the United States had spent decades building up in the region, cannot be justified by changing circumstances. The Middle East is too complex and volatile a place for one to seriously believe that the situation prevailing today will remain static; or to assume that what Obama has abandoned may not one day provoke a backlash that decisively harms America.

The fact is that Obama’s publicists have often deployed mediocre explanations to explain his disengagement from foreign relations. There is a difference between realism and non-intervention, and on too many issues Obama has allowed lethargy to rule. In countries such as Syria, Egypt and Iraq, the Russians, realizing this, have rushed in to fill the void.

Today, Obama is playing catch-up, making statements about Syria that were perfectly evident years ago, but which the president refused to acknowledge at the time. The most notable of these was his remark on Tuesday that countries would not be able to defeat ISIS in Syria if Bashar Assad remained in office. That’s true, but last year, when the United States began bombing ISIS in Iraq, the president was completely unwilling to accept this logic and develop a cohesive strategy for Syria.

He still hasn’t. American criticism of Russian actions in Syria is justified. Russia has opened a Pandora’s box, one that it will not be able to soon close. Yet when Obama said before the UN General Assembly that Assad’s brutality had made a return to the status quo in Syria impossible, he was not really speaking as a realist. He was effectively making a moral observation that the Syrian leader, “after so much bloodshed, so much carnage,” was now so far beyond the pale that he could not remain in office.

It’s only when Obama happens to forget his political realist pretensions, it seems, that he begins to make sense.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Egypt is poorer for the demise of a wily playwright

Even post-mortem, Ali Salem’s critics could not bring themselves to say something nice about him. The death of the Egyptian playwright last week at 79 was greeted with customary denunciations of a man who, in 1994, published a book about his drive through Israel. Mr Salem, a defender of normalisation with the Israelis, paid a high price for this attitude.

However, those who condemned Mr Salem often left unanswered a fundamental question relating to peace with Israel: if peace was a strategic option of Arab regimes – and in the early 1990s when the playwright decided to visit the country it was – then of what value was peace without normalisation?

Even today an Arab peace offer remains on the table. The Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and approved at an Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002, has not been withdrawn. Yet Israel never showed any interest in the Arab offer, which could be summarised as “full withdrawal from occupied lands in exchange for full peace”.

Israel’s rejection of the initiative only made Mr Salem’s efforts appear more Quixotic, but it did not clarify what peace should entail. And here the experiences of the playwright showed that, while certain Arab intellectuals are well-endowed with outrage, they have greater trouble proposing practical solutions.

Famously, Mr Salem was expelled from the Writers Union in 2001, a decision that was reversed when he went to court. With a typical sense of provocation, Mr Salem then resigned. I recall him repeating the story to me in a hotel room in Doha. One could sense that, whatever Mr Salem’s critics did, they would not prevail over this indomitable man of oversized personality.

In deciding to turn Mr Salem into an outcast, his critics in Egypt resorted to behaviour that smacked far more of intellectual Stalinism than dedication to principle. His challenge was made in the realm of ideas; their answer was to engage in intimidation. Israel is unresponsive to peace, but that was always the best argument against Mr Salem, not segregation.

Perhaps, also, Mr Salem had greater faith in Egypt than his detractors. As the American journalist Charles Paul Freund recalled in a piece written for the Daily Star in 2005, Mr Salem describes an incident in his book that occurred after the signing of the Oslo Accords. An Egyptian academic described to novelist Naguib Mahfouz his fears that normalisation could mean that Israeli culture would threaten Egypt’s heritage.

Mr Mahfouz responded: “Do you really think that Israel is capable of doing this to us?” When the academic said that he did, Mr Mahfouz’s rejoinder was laconic: “If Israel is capable of annihilating the artistic, literary and cultural heritage of Egypt and the Arab world, then we’d better all die.”

By telling the story, Mr Salem was expressing his own confidence, alongside that of Egypt’s most eminent writer, in what his country stood for. He had shrewdly grasped that there was much more in his detractors than displeasure with his political stance toward Israel; there was a lack of conviction in Egypt itself and its capacity to defend its priorities.

Such doubts, to Mr Salem, were probably associated with an Egypt of the past, in which a sense of insecurity towards Israel was tied in to the many Egyptian defeats at Israel’s hands. In their refusal to address normalisation, his critics showed an inability to define a self-assured vision for Egypt in the region.

My last encounter with Mr Salem took place, perhaps not surprisingly, in the most surreal circumstances. He was visiting Beirut years ago and called me, asking me to pick him up at his hotel. I was happy to oblige and arrived at the Beau Rivage, with some amusement.

At the time the Beau Rivage was near Syrian intelligence headquarters in the capital, and the Lebanese would nervously use the hotel’s name to refer to Syrian intelligence rule. I entered the grim, empty lobby and waited for Mr Salem, wondering how on earth an advocate of normalisation with Israel had ended up in such a place.

The playwright soon arrived and provided an answer, blithely telling me that he had been invited to Lebanon by an Iranian television station for an interview.

This highlighted one of the paradoxes surrounding the man – no less so than the fact that his book on Israel became a bestseller in Egypt. It showed that even as Mr Salem faced censure, there were not a few people, Egyptians and others, interested in hearing what this iconoclast had to say. It’s a shame we won’t be able to do so any more. Egypt is poorer as a consequence.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Uncle Gamal - Forty-five years later, Nasser’s legacy still escapes us

On 28 September, some Arabs will commemorate the 45th anniversary of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death. But in one respect the onetime Egyptian president never left us, laying the foundations of the Arab security state that prevails to this day.

Those romantic about Arab nationalism will want to remember Nasser as much more than that. It was he who sent shockwaves throughout the region when, as the leading figure in the Free Officers movement, he overthrew the monarchy of King Farouq in 1952. It was also he who struck a blow against the declining colonial powers, when, in 1956, he nationalized the foreign-owned Suez Canal Company, saying its revenues would help finance the then symbol of Egyptian economic reaffirmation, the Aswan High Dam.

So much of the heroic symbolism in the modern Middle East is tied into things with which Nasser was associated, that to reduce him to the establishment of an authoritarian order seems low. Perhaps, but nearly half a century after his death, that part of his legacy remains more alive than any other.

It is interesting that among those who helped reinforce Egypt’s security order were the Americans, in particular the Central Intelligence Agency. During the 1950s, the Americans were looking to strengthen their ties with Arab nationalist regimes that, they thought, would be better able to contain communism in the Arab world. Nasser seemed an ideal choice, but in Syria as well the CIA sought to build up a relationship with another officer, Husni al-Zaim, who seized power in 1949 in a coup.

And yet a great misnomer is that Nasser ushered in the era of Arab military regimes. As Cambridge sociologist Hazem Kandil has written in a fascinating revisionist book published in 2012, titled Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt, Nasser spent much of his time trying to counterbalance the military.

For Kandil, many of the developments in post-revolution Egypt were driven by Nasser’s rivalry with his old friend, Abdel Hakim Amer, who had built a powerful position for himself as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, before becoming first vice president and deputy supreme commander. Nasser felt threatened by Amer. But being unable to clip his wings from within the military hierarchy, he did so politically, resorting to the novel tactic of establishing the Arab Socialist Union. This mass party was used to mobilize support for the regime and prevent the military from staging a coup.

“Nasser’s real goal was to create a civilian network of vested interests to enhance his power vis-à-vis the military,” Kandil writes.

Similar patterns were replicated under Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, though each man adopted different measures. Sadat built up the powers of the Interior Ministry to offset the military. Mubarak, even as he continued to do the same thing, also encouraged the expansion of a capitalist class tied to the regime, which was given greater power in the system to formulate policy.

Kandil’s book is an eye-opener because it explains the brutal subtleties of Arab regimes. Their priority is survival, which means Arab dictators tend to destroy all institutions or individuals posing a potential threat to them. That is why the rubric “military regime” is so misleading. Leaders often emerge from the military, but then seek to undermine those mechanisms that initially propelled them to power by curtailing the effectiveness of the armed forces.

This can involve installing a vast security apparatus to control the military. It can also mean placing loyalists in key positions in the armed forces to keep an eye on what is going on. Arab leaders have usually done both, taking care even to watch the watchers, as no one can ever truly be trusted. That is why parallel intelligence services have proliferated, notably in Syria, as each one keeps tabs on the others. All information is centralized at the top, where the leader alone has a comprehensive picture of what is taking place.

The protections Arab regimes put in place to survive can be very efficient. In Libya, Muammar Gadhafi may have been ousted, but that was only because Western airpower supported the rebels. In Syria, Bashar Assad may have lost large swathes of territory and has engaged in mass murder against his society, but the core of his regime has held. He is perceived by many dupes as a foe of jihadism and his foreign backers have come through. Sadly, his foul regime may now be gaining in strength rather than the contrary.

One of Kandil’s most interesting arguments is that the great disaster of the Nasser period, the defeat of the Arab armies in the 1967 war against Israel, came about because Nasser’s efforts to counterbalance the army were so successful. As a consequence of this, Amer and his acolytes sought to achieve something spectacular to regain the initiative. Though Amer knew Egypt was in no condition to fight Israel, he took provocative steps in the run-up to June 1967 “to salvage the image and influence of the army.”
According to Kandil, Nasser, who is often blamed for the 1967 war, strongly opposed the Egyptian decision in May 1967 to request a withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force in Sinai that separated the Egyptian and Israeli armies. Nasser, aware that a full withdrawal would raise the probability of war, told Amer to request only a partial withdrawal, but this was never implemented. Amer, not Nasser, then closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, provoking a casus belli that led to the devastating Israeli attack.

Forty-five years after his death, Gamal Abdel Nasser continues to leave an ambiguous legacy — being blamed for that for which he may not have been responsible, even as the nature of his authoritarian power is equally misunderstood. It’s surprising that to this day no great biography has been written of the man. Banished to the realm of myth, Nasser remains elusive even after all this time.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Imagination, not exclusion, revives central Beirut

After weeks of demonstrations in Beirut’s city centre, last week the Beirut Traders Association held a press conference. The association, a bastion of bourgeois Lebanon, asked demonstrators to leave the downtown, saying their actions were undermining the area’s economy. The association’s head, Nicolas Shammas, then uttered a phrase he would regret.

Mr Shammas vowed that the area would never again return to being, as he put it, “Abou Rakhussa”, a colloquial term referring to the pre-civil war atmosphere when goods were sold off the pavement. “Rakhussa” derives from the Arabic word for “cheap”, so Mr Shammas was effectively saying the demonstrators were cheapening the area, planned as a hub for high-end retail outlets.

Not surprisingly the phrase hit a nerve. Many people interpreted the remarks as those of a prosperous merchant telling Lebanese of more modest means that they should steer clear of a luxury area they would degrade by their presence. Since the demonstrators had spent weeks protesting against serious government failings, his warning was doubly insulting.

But in one way Mr Shammas cast a useful light on the original flaw in the city centre area, managed by a private property company named Solidere. The company was formed after the 1975-1990 civil war to facilitate reconstruction of the largely destroyed district, and former property owners were compensated with shares.

From the start, the 1991 master plan for the area, which defined Solidere’s reconstruction model, provoked controversy. In 1992, writing in The Beirut Review, sociologist Nabil Beyhum criticised the project for, among other things, focusing on luxury shops while excluding popular ones: “Conceived of as an island of wealth and power, the city centre would no longer have a centralising role but would instead become an island like all other urban islands which arose during the war.”

Since then, many of Mr Beyhum’s predictions have been borne out. The city centre, while attractive, has indeed emerged as an urban island, cut off to a large extent from the areas around it.

Yet, ironically, this was not true in 2005, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from all over Lebanon descended on the area after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Now, a nonsectarian protest movement has chosen the city centre to condemn government inaction and corruption.

Political disputes have allowed the area to play a role as geographical unifier, located as it is between predominantly Muslim western Beirut and mainly Christian eastern Beirut. Mr Shammas doesn’t realise that there is more to a city centre than spaces of consumption. In his plea for protesters to leave the area, he failed to mention that large swaths of it were already empty, many shops having long closed down.

It would be unfair to Mr Shammas not to recognise that politics have indeed partly been the undoing of the downtown. In 2006, Hizbollah and its political allies, in an effort to force the resignation of prime minister Fouad Al Siniora’s government, staged a sit-in of several months in the area, killing its economy.

There was more than a little schadenfreude involved. The identity Solidere sought to embody, that of a bastion of style and luxury in the heart of Beirut, was sure to provoke the ire of the protesters at the time, who mostly came from low-income backgrounds. Moreover, Solidere was identified with the rival Hariri camp, the late Rafiq Hariri having owned a significant share in the company, so it became a political target.

But there was more to it than that. The opening of the new Beirut Souks in 2009 drew businesses and customers away from the central part of the city, causing businesses there to close. Solidere has also been inflexible, continuing to charge high rents and making shops unprofitable as Lebanon has gone through an economic downturn brought on by the war in Syria.

Today the area is struggling – it has fallen far short of Hariri’s dream of turning it into an axis of regional commerce. To walk through the area is to see Lebanon’s unfulfilled ambitions during the past 15 years. Mr Shammas’s disappointment is understandable, for those ambitions were shared by Lebanon’s business community.

But he is dead wrong in blaming demonstrators. The area was suffering long before from a lack of tourism due to regional tensions. Its desire to appeal to the financial elite only made matters worse, as it kept many Lebanese away. Paradoxically, returning to “Abou Rakhussa” might revive the city centre, even if it shatters the glittery image Mr Shammas seeks to project.

Cities are living organisms, a fact ignored by Solidere and Mr Shammas. Whatever vision they have for the centre, it will not thrive if large parts of it remain empty. This requires more than blaming protesters. It requires an imaginative policy by Solidere to resurrect the area. Mr Shammas should know that.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Opposites protract - Alas, Russia has a plan in Syria, but America doesn’t

One day someone will write a book on how the United States and Russia behaved in Syria. They will argue that whereas the Russians had a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve, the Americans had none whatsoever, and spent years backtracking or adjusting to a reality that surpassed them.

This was made evident again this week when General Lloyd Austin, the commander of US Central Command, admitted to Congress that only “four or five” Syrians who had been trainees under a $500 million program to arm and train “moderate” rebels were fighting in Syria. This was a shock, despite Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s disclosure in July that the United States had trained only 60 rebels to combat ISIS in Syria.

The Obama administration now accepts that its program has failed and is looking to change direction. The Americans aim to bring in up to 500 Syrians as “enablers and liaisons” to coordinate between US forces stationed outside Syria and groups inside that have been deemed effective against ISIS.

In other words, the administration is still avoiding what is at the heart of the Syrian conflict: Bashar Assad. Even as they tell the Russians that Assad’s presence is fueling the war, the Americans refuse to take action that might force him out. Washington has refused to arm and train rebels to fight the Assad regime, fearing that its sudden collapse might benefit ISIS.

US officials told media outlets last July that an agreement had been reached with Turkey over the creation of an ISIS-free zone in northern Syria, which could double as a safe zone for displaced Syrians. Yet Austin contradicted this when he told Senator John McCain that he did not recommend such a zone “at this time.”

The Americans have warned the Russians against a military build-up in Syria, arguing it would only prolong the war. The Russians are keeping a mass murderer in place, but for Washington to tell the Russians this when American inaction for nearly five years has allowed the conflict to drag on and become a humanitarian nightmare shows remarkable nerve.  

Russia is morally condemnable in Syria, yet President Vladimir Putin quickly grasped one thing in 2011: It’s better to know what one wants and pursue it with conviction than to try to be morally upright and allow one’s indecision to make a situation worse. Neither Syria’s opposition nor their Arab backers has made Russia pay for its pro-Assad line, while the Obama administration is viewed by both with ill-concealed contempt.

What is the Russian plan in Syria? There is more to it than merely arming and bolstering Assad. The Russians tend to think in strategic terms, and see that keeping Assad in power must be fortified with a political arrangement. Apparently Putin believes the time is ripe for such an arrangement, with Europe facing a major refugee crisis, the United States still having no Syria policy, and the Syrians exhausted by years of war.

If one had to guess, the Russians see an opening to use terrorism fears in the West as an opportunity to push through a political plan that keeps Assad in power and that would isolate his foes, above all Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The plan in question is likely to be a modified version of the one proposed by the United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

De Mistura has proposed that four working groups be set up, including representatives of the regime and the opposition, to discuss safety and protection, political and constitutional issues, military and security issues, including fighting terrorism, and public institutions and development.

Revealingly, De Mistura has said that his plan is based on two pillars: combating terrorism and protecting Syrian state institutions. This must be music to Russian ears. The plan would outline a transitional phase, during which a temporary government would be formed with executive powers. The proposal has been adopted by the UN and welcomed by Egypt, but is rejected by the Syrian opposition.

Indeed, much of the plan is vague and there is no mechanism for Assad to step down. However, whereas De Mistura may favor turning Assad into a figurehead to attract opposition approval, the Russians have excluded this. Moscow feels it can impose Assad as a leader, and a recent British proposal that he remain in power for a limited transitional phase, like signs of a Spanish shift on Assad, shows they may be justified.

At the same time the Russians are said to be deploying forces to the city of Hama. If confirmed, this would put them on the front line in fighting Jabhat al-Nusra and to a lesser extent ISIS in Aleppo Governorate. Having proven their bona fides in combating terrorism, and having secured Assad in Latakia Governorate, the Russians would be in a better position to push everyone toward a solution in Syria that ultimately keeps Assad in place.

That is easier said than done, but the Europeans are so overwhelmed by Syrian refugees that they may be willing to consider it. The Americans have criticized the Russians, but are focused on improving ties with Iran and have no enthusiasm for seriously opposing Russian actions. And the Arab states and Turkey offer nothing but more war and radicalization, so that their position may be eroded internationally, forcing them to reconsider their actions in Syria if a consensus emerges.

The Russians’ intentions are cynical, but their single-mindedness may pay off. What they really see is that on the other side of the aisle they have an Obama administration that has proven utterly incompetent in Syria. The highway is open and the Russians will ride it until they get what they want. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Egypt redefines its sense of regional purpose

In recent years, Egypt has paid a high price for two developments. The first was the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in 2011, which set dynamics in motion that transformed the country and created ongoing instability. The second was the transformation of Egypt’s regional role thanks to the Obama administration’s pivot away from the Middle East.

Today the country is facing major challenges: a burgeoning terrorist threat, particularly in the Sinai; a vulnerable economy, thanks in part to the decline in tourism amid a perception that the country is unsafe; and uncertainty about Egypt’s regional function.

To be fair to Abdel Fattah El Sisi, however, the decline in Egypt’s regional influence predated his coming to power. Under Mr Mubarak there was already a crisis of confidence because the issues through which Egypt gained regional status, such as Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, terrorism, and Egypt’s role as a cornerstone of the American alliance system in the Middle East, had become less of a priority.

When Mr El Sisi took power, he was backed by Gulf allies who shared Cairo’s opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. Other priorities have complicated the picture since then, including the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen and the potential impact of developments in Syria on Egyptian security.

The reversal over Syria has been a useful indicator of how Mr El Sisi has pursued Egyptian interests, even if this leads him away from his traditional allies.

The Egyptian fear may be understandable. Mr El Sisi is concerned that a victory by jihadis in Syria might embolden those in Egypt. Nor are the Egyptians alone. Jordan is equally concerned by the prospect of Jabhat Al Nusra or ISIL taking over in Syria, which is why it has prevented opposition groups in the south from mounting attacks against Damascus.

The agendas of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are different to those of Egypt and Jordan, despite official exclamations of cooperation and the fact that all are united in opposing Iran. This tells us much about how the region has changed in five years, as state interaction is being shaped by a far more complex array of interests.

Domestically, Mr El Sisi has used the backlash against former president Mohammed Morsi to reimpose strong political control. This has not been without consequences. A crackdown against journalists, for instance, provoked international outrage, even if this was later tempered after a rise in terrorist attacks pushed governments to take a softer line with Mr El Sisi.

Egypt has also had to redefine its sense of regional purpose in light of the Obama administration’s radical shift away from the Middle East. The Egyptian armed forces never forgave the US for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.

Barack Obama’s utter inaction in helping find a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a blow to Egypt, as it had always played a vital mediating role in negotiations. In fact, under Mr Obama the Americans have shown little regard for Egypt’s previous standing as a leading American ally.

While Mr Obama did speak to the Muslim world from Cairo in June 2009, he did so first from Ankara, where he addressed the Turkish parliament. In the past American officials had tended to make Egypt one of their first stops on trips to the region. Under Mr Obama, Turkey and Iraq were, while the Cairo visit came only two months later. More important, the president never returned.

Egypt reacted to this sense of relative marginalisation by improving its relationship with Russia, which has astutely exploited Arab anger with America’s negligent attitude. Russia has supplied Egypt with weapons and Mr El Sisi and Vladimir Putin have met on numerous occasions.

It’s difficult to see where this might lead, but Russia has re-entered the Middle East’s centre stage after almost two decades of being pushed to the sidelines by the United States. Egypt and Syria may anchor new Russian affirmation in the region, but for now the distinct sense is that Mr El Sisi, facing major domestic obstacles, is still working hard to get Egypt’s reinvention right.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Winter of our discontent - Michel Aoun, Christians and the Arab Spring

Recently, Michel Aoun, in a speech to his followers, decried the impact of the Arab Spring on Lebanon. While the uprisings in the Arab world have indeed proven to be catastrophic, or have failed, it was surprising to hear this from the general.

Let me take you back to the end of the 1980s and explain why. At the time, I worked in a research center, and one of my jobs was to read all of Aoun’s speeches when he was head of a military government and fighting the Syrians and the Lebanese Forces. In his regular addresses to his followers Aoun portrayed himself as a revolutionary figure who sought to eliminate the privileges of the Lebanese political elite and overturn the sectarian system. The fact that Aoun was someone from the social periphery, a rural Maronite who had grown up in Haret Hreik, whose social promotion had taken place through the army, was a theme always implicit in what the general said.

The Arab uprisings, regardless of their successes or failures, were motivated by similar impulses. So for Aoun to refer to a desire for change solely as a catastrophe, without stopping to mention how the political orders that provoked the uprisings were themselves catastrophic, was instructive.

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another example of Aoun’s hypocrisy and double-dealing, of which examples abound. But his reaction reflects that of many members of religious minorities in the Middle East, who regard the Arab Spring merely as a byword for an Islamist revival. Indeed, such fears are one reason why Aoun has defended Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, after having fought it back when Hafez Assad was responsible for ravaging Lebanese Christian fortunes.

For a start, Aoun’s reaction shows that his old promise of a secular order was a sham. The general is as sectarian as they come, but in this he is hardly alone. A good part of his populist message has been to attack Sunnis, with his followers recently depicting the Future Movement and Prime Minister Tammam Salam as socially acceptable versions of ISIS.

But it’s Aoun’s approach toward reform that is the greater question mark. In 2005 he joined the ruling class that he had earlier denounced. He and his family members began to profit from the political system, all the time insisting to their gullible followers that they were improving matters, or trying to, but that those with vested interests were hindering them.

Recall that Aoun held up the formation of Saad Hariri’s government in 2009 until his son-in-law Gebran Bassil was handed the lucrative energy ministry (this after Bassil had headed the prosperous telecommunications ministry). His reformist skills were hardly on display. Though Bassil promised 24 hours of electricity a day, the condition of Lebanon’s power system has never been as disastrous, with parts of Beirut (including my own) seeing power cuts of up to eight hours a day. And that’s not beginning to mention rural areas, where electricity is rather like the Virgin Mary: everyone has heard of it, but almost no one seems to ever see it.

It was revealing that when protesters took over the environment ministry two weeks ago, Aoun sided with the rest of the political class in condemning the move, warning that chaos was not a solution. In siding with the politicians against an initiative pushed by non-sectarian civil society activists, Aoun contradicted another of his promises from the 1980s. The general may be right in doubting the success of the activists, as are many people, but his willingness to affirm the mood of a political class he had done much to condemn was remarkable.

The jury is still out on the Arab Spring, but it’s fair to say that the record until now has not been heartening. A number of dictators and tyrants were overthrown, while others are still hanging on. The ensuing destruction, as well as the rise of extremism, will have made many people utterly cynical about the consequences of challenging authoritarian leaders. Better a despot who maintains order, many will insist, than democracy that leads only to undemocratic, intolerant religious rule.  

Certainly the Arab Spring demands introspection by Arab societies. Why is it that, with the relative exception of Tunisia and to a lesser extent Egypt, the revolts led to a combination of civil war and religious radicalism? Much of the blame can be directed at the regimes themselves, especially in Libya and Syria, who provoked civil war to protect themselves. But it is also true that those opposing the regimes quickly allowed their movements to be taken over by a powerful extremist fringe.

So what should non-Muslim minorities, not to say Muslim majorities, think? Aoun’s reaction, while terribly shortsighted, is also one that many Christians in the region will echo. Is their salvation, then, to continue to survive in the shadow of absolutist regimes that stifle all freedom and suffocate all ambition? The decline in Christian numbers in the region, and indeed the large number of Muslims walking through Europe today, suggests not. Anyone who can, chooses to emigrate.

So, Aoun, once a defender of reform and change, views the Arab Spring as calamitous. He’s right that Lebanon has paid a high price, but without change and reform the Arab world will head toward new tragedies of biblical proportion. Aoun’s own career is a fine illustration of how the region can breed mediocrity.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Russia capitalises on US hesitancy, bolstering Assad

Officials in Washington have recently expressed their concern that Russia may be escalating its military involvement in Syria in defence of Bashar Al Assad’s regime. While the Russians have denied deploying ground forces to the country, there are numerous indications that the Russian military presence is expanding.

Whether the Russians are playing a combat role or merely an advisory one remains unclear. The evidence suggests that the Russians are reinforcing the Syrian regime militarily in key areas, particularly Latakia, the heartland of the Alawites. On Monday, the London daily Al Hayat reported that Latakia’s airport is now controlled by Russian experts.

A source told the paper that Moscow’s aim was to impose a balance of forces in Syria and prevent the collapse of the Syrian army, for the purpose of reaching a political solution based on the principles agreed in Geneva. What this means is that Russia has no intention whatsoever of accepting Mr Al Assad’s departure as a basis for negotiations – quite the contrary.

In this, both Russia and Iran are on the same wavelength. And they are watching the United States very carefully to assess their own margin of manoeuvre. The Obama administration’s reaction will determine to a great extent how Europe and the Arab states react to Moscow’s and Tehran’s moves in Syria, but for now neither Russia nor Iran has much to worry about.

While the Obama administration has opposed a military build-up and has persuaded friendly countries to close their airspace to Russian transport planes, both also see that the Americans are profoundly ambiguous when it comes to Mr Al Assad’s future, not quite saying what they really believe. On the one hand they want the Syrian president ultimately to leave office. On the other, they do not want this to happen precipitously, fearing it could leave a vacuum that would be exploited by ISIL.

This attitude has given Russia and Iran wide latitude to reinforce Mr Al Assad and turn the international anti-ISIL effort to their advantage.

The Russians will be able to justify their military escalation in the context of the anti-terrorism campaign that Vladimir Putin has called for in the past weeks, and that was rejected by the Gulf states in early August.

What Mr Putin realises is that the Americans have fundamentally shifted in their outlook towards the region. In the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran, president Barack Obama has been much more willing to recognise and defer to Iranian interests in Syria, a point he implicitly acknowledged in a letter last year to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Moreover, Mr Obama’s primary interest in Syria continues to be ISIL, and far less so inter-Syrian dynamics. Putting two and two together, Russia and Iran have concluded that Washington will probably not seriously oppose their actions in Syria, nor will it greatly bolster efforts by Mr Assad’s foes to bring him down.

Indeed, the continued delay in Turkey’s establishment of a security zone in northern Syria may confirm this. Even though news of an agreement over the zone was leaked by American officials as far back as July, until now there has been no evidence that the plan is about to be implemented.

In remarks to a conference of G20 finance ministers in Ankara last week, Ahmed Davutoglu, Turkey’s prime minister, declared that his country had tried to persuade the international community of the need to create a security zone in Syria to shelter Syrian refugees, but the response had not been positive.

Mr Davutoglu was speaking in the shadow of Europe’s migrant crisis, but there were broader implications to what he said. The Obama administration is still reluctant to allow a security zone, fearing several things: that anti-ISIL Syrian “moderate” rebels are not yet prepared to fight the group in this area; and that Turkish and American military involvement may help bring about the Syrian regime’s disintegration.

Not surprisingly, there is nothing here to dissuade Mr Putin from building up Russia’s military role. If anything, Russia and Iran are regarded by Washington as objective allies against ISIL, in much the same way as were Shia militias in Iraq, despite American criticism of the militias’ sectarian behaviour.

In light of this, it’s easy to be pessimistic about the recent American-Saudi summit in Washington, regardless of efforts by both sides to accentuate the positive.

Almost nothing unites the Americans and Saudis in Syria. Nor is it likely that Mr Obama convinced King Salman that America is serious about containing Iran regionally. The president has sought to integrate Iran more into regional solutions, and previously recognised Tehran’s interests in Syria.

Russian and Iranian resolve in Syria is in proportion to American detachment. The Obama administration seeks a negotiated solution, as do the Russians and Iranians. But while the Americans know what they don’t want in Syria, they are unsure of how to arrive at what they do want. Moscow and Tehran will continue to take advantage of their indecision.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Still fooling us - America remains inconsistent on Bashar Assad

To get a sense of how confusing the Obama administration’s policy in Syria remains, recall that about a year ago the United States was preparing to assist the Iraqi government in fighting ISIS. Yet critics of the administration warned that doing so in Iraq and not in Syria was a fool’s errand. ISIS would just shift forces between the two countries and in that way protect itself.

At the time, the administration had not completely ruled out attacking ISIS in Syria. Indeed, in a nationally televised address President Barack Obama had declared: “I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against [ISIS] in Syria, as well as Iraq.”

However, the real question was whether Obama would apply the same logic in Syria as in Iraq. Whereas in Iraq he had argued that a fundamental aspect of the anti-ISIS strategy was to integrate Sunnis into the political system, in that way ensuring ISIS could not exploit Sunni discontent, in Syria there was no such  motiviation. Obama continued to reject involving the United States in the Syrian conflict (“somebody else’s civil war,” as he infamously described it in 2013), and completely avoided addressing how to reduce Sunni discontent in Syria.

The Obama administration’s attitude toward President Bashar Assad remains profoundly ambiguous. The Americans want him, ultimately, to leave office, but fear that his sudden collapse today might represent a boon for ISIS and other extremists. Yet the United States has also accepted the idea, with Turkey, of setting up a “safety zone” in northern Syria, from which ISIS would be expelled. Much about the zone remains unclear, but it does create options that may affect the Syrian endgame.

Washington’s and Ankara’s approval of the zone facilitated an agreement allowing American warplanes to launch strikes in Syria from Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base. But an ISIS-free zone would also mean securing an area through which the rebels could transfer large quantities of weapons into Syria. This could precipitate the collapse of regime forces in Aleppo. And if the Turks move Syrian refugees into the area, it would provide a vast reservoir of fresh combatants for Assad’s foes.

Given all this, is Washington truly happy with all the implications of a safety zone? Or does it worry that it might help precipitate Assad’s downfall at a moment when Washington is not eager for this to happen? That the safety zone has yet to be established a month and a half after the idea was first leaked to the media may tell usa great deal.

The imperative of finding a solution to the war in Syria has been made more urgent by the growing migrant crisis affecting Europe. While the United States has not been affected by this, the pressure is building fast to find a resolution after four years of disgraceful American and international lethargy.

However, that has not made the American strategy any more cohesive. As Russia and Iran have engaged in diplomacy over Syria, they have made it apparent that they will not accept Assad’s departure as the starting point of a political process. Can you blame them? They see that the Obama administration is equivocal about Assad’s fate and have no reason to concede the point. That’s why Russia and Iran insist that what happens to Assad can only be decided by the Syrians themselves.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that the Obama administration still regards Syria as important principally due to ISIS. There is little consideration of the war on its own demerits — a legacy of Obama’s persistent refusal to take on another Arab headache. He can’t see that this has ensured the Americans will be unable to resolve their own dilemma in Syria: they accept that Assad will remain in power, even momentarily, as an enemy of ISIS, while they are also trying to enroll Syria’s Sunnis in an anti-ISIS campaign that they will have little impetus to join while Assad remains in power.

Meanwhile America is implementing the adage, ‘when it doubt, kill.’ Absent a broad, coherent policy toward the country, the administration has engaged in an effort to assassinate ISIS leaders in Syria using drones and special operations forces. This won’t do much harm, but it allows the administration to say it is acting, without posing a major risk to American personnel.

The American program to train ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels is ongoing and American commentators friendly to the administration have been trying to reinforce the idea that Obama is serious about it. Perhaps, but until now we have not seen a sustained effort to remove ISIS from the prospective safety zone in northern Syria, nor the kind of American military commitment we saw last year in defense of Kobane.

Nearly five years after the start of the conflict in Syria the United States is still prevaricating. Barack Obama is a prisoner of his own inconsistencies, not least a promise made to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last year that American operations in Syria would not target Assad’s forces.

With Obama now certain of passing the nuclear deal with Iran, we are likely to see more of the same. Every American move suggesting change in Syria during the past four years has proven to be a mirage. Obama can keep up this game until he leaves office. Not a few Syrians will be happy to see his back.  

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Don’t be fooled by the trash talk in Lebanon

The recent demonstrations in Beirut against the government have prompted many people to describe what is happening in superlatives. While the effect shouldn’t be underestimated, it’s a mistake to assume the actions represent a fundamental challenge to the Lebanese political system.

The demonstrations against the government were provoked by the rubbish collection crisis, which began in July when the site that took refuse from Beirut and Mount Lebanon was closed down. The government failed to find an alternative location and waste soon accumulated all over the country.

Public anger led to the formation of groups demanding a solution to the crisis, but also denouncing the corruption of the political class – whose efforts to redistribute the profits from refuse collection was behind the crisis in the first place. This led to a widening of the protests as everyone with a beef against the state became part of a burgeoning effort to condemn the government.

Large demonstrations took place the last two weekends, with four conditions set by activists: firstly, the resignation of the environment minister, who oversees rubbish dumps. Secondly, an inquiry to determine who among the security forces fired at protesters two weeks ago and the resignation of the interior minister if he was responsible. Thirdly, parliamentary elections, which have twice been delayed and, finally, a sustainable solution to the refuse crisis, coupled with an investigation of the waste-management sector.

The government was given 72 hours to meet these demands. It horribly mismanaged the situation by ignoring them and, on Tuesday, activists took over the environment ministry to force the minister’s resignation. But beyond giving the government serious headaches, what can the activists really do to change the system?

For a partial answer it’s useful to compare what is happening today to the demonstrations in 2005, following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

At the time, protests took place for weeks on end, bringing together people of different sects under a single demand: a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, given Syria’s likely role in Mr Hariri’s killing. The protests culminated in a rally of one million people at Martyrs Square on March 14, 2005. By the end of April, Syria had pulled out its forces after a 29-year presence.

The ensuing euphoria led to a misinterpretation of what had happened. Like today, there were those who saw the protests and the unity shown by all as signs that the Lebanese had transcended sectarianism and that a new national identity had replaced it. The same talk can be heard today. Yet what happened in 2005 was inherently sectarian. Most of those demonstrating did so with the encouragement of their sectarian leaders, while supporting parochial political agendas. The power of the anti-Syrian rallies came from the fact that everyone came to Martyrs Square for their own reasons. The Lebanese were joined through their differences and their hostility to Syria.

Indeed, once the Syrians left, the different groups began to fragment. By the time parliamentary elections were held, the Lebanese were again bitterly divided and the idealistic interpretations that had accompanied the anti-Syrian demonstrations had disappeared.

While the protesters today are not being manipulated by sectarian leaders, the fact that there is cross-sectarian disgust with the incompetence of the state is unlikely to change much. The protesters have limited means to implement their demands and replace sectarian politicians. They can continue demonstrating, but this is a tactic with diminishing returns. The longer they rally the more they will be contested.

Nor is Lebanese society in any mood to challenge sectarian leaders. It is easy to denounce the political class in general, but when it comes to specifics people respond differently. For instance, while many poor Sunnis are bitter with systematic government negligence, they regard the demonstrations against prime minister Tammam Salam as targeting the post of the Sunni prime minister.

The denunciation of sectarianism is a common theme adopted by Lebanese who have a more modern vision of what should constitute a national identity. However, sectarianism is deeply rooted in the culture, and has gained in legitimacy because it has spawned a paradoxical form of liberalism. Paradoxical, because sectarianism is thoroughly antithetical to liberal principles.

How has it done so? Lebanon’s sectarian groups are collectively more powerful than the state, so political and social life has been shaped by interaction between these groups and their leaders. Such interaction – usually defined by compromise and pluralism – has, however, created spaces where state control is minimal and in which the Lebanese can enjoy significant liberty.

This system, with all its faults, contrasts with the authoritarianism throughout the Arab world. The Lebanese denounce their politicians, but also retain the freedom to denounce them. The system has not worked well, but it creates a sense of identity and security. Writing it off is a fool’s venture, and those honest people who want profound change in Lebanon should bear it in mind.

Friday, August 28, 2015

My brother, my enemy - Christian ambiguity toward Sunnis is real and risky

Amid reports that Hezbollah may seek to impose Michel Aoun’s presidency on Lebanon’s political class, a subtext of this is the Christians’ relationship with the Sunni community in Lebanon and the Middle East.

The reason is that Aoun’s election, if indeed it happens, is not an end in itself. For Hezbollah, the general’s election would put him in a position to drive a process of constitutional revision. With his large Christian bloc, and in alliance with the Shiite blocs, Aoun could announce that Taif needs to be modified. For Hezbollah, a new constitution is needed to protect the party’s interests at a time when Sunnis feel increasingly empowered by the declining fortunes of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria.

The party understands that if Assad were to go, Lebanon’s Sunnis would be electrified, making it all but impossible for Hezbollah to pursue an independent agenda on behalf of Iran. At the least demands for the party’s disarmament would rise, posing an existential threat that Hezbollah will not allow.

That is why the party seeks a constitutional transformation and abandonment of Taif. The often-mentioned solution is for a change in sectarian representation in parliament, the government, and the civil service from a 50-50 breakdown of Christians to Muslims to one of thirds — with roughly a third of positions reserved for Maronites, a third for Sunnis, and a third for Shiites, with smaller sects distributed within this framework.

The rationale is that Shiites and Christians would form a structural majority of two-thirds over Sunnis, retaining control over the political system and ensuring that any backlash from events in Syria will not seriously affect Hezbollah’s fortunes.

From the Christians’ perspective, however, what is there to gain from seeing their representation decrease from half the shares in the state to a third? On its own, nothing. But proponents of a division of thirds see things differently. In addition to the purported long-term security such a deal would bring Christians, they would also endorse in exchange for being granted greater decentralization, a clause in Taif that was never implemented.

In fact, in their recent joint declaration, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces both denounced the “incomplete” implementation of Taif and, in Article 14, stated their commitment to “administrative decentralization.” In a key clause they also endorsed financial decentralization, which Taif does not mention, declaring their support for the “transfer of a large share of the prerogatives of the central administration, in particular those related to development, to elected decentralized authorities in accord with the rules, and the securing of [self-generated] revenues necessary for this.”

Christian fear and resentment of the Sunnis is very disturbing, but is linked to regional developments as well as past frustrations. The progress of Sunni extremists in Syria has alarmed Lebanon’s Christians, and the fate of their brethren in Iraq and Syria has only increased their anxieties. This reaction, however, has been without nuance. Rarely do Christians pause to see the extent to which opponents of the Sunnis have been been responsible for the rise in extremism.

Then there is the longstanding antipathy directed against the Future Movement and Rafiq Hariri’s legacy. To Christians, Taif replaced a system in which Christians were dominant with one in which they became marginalized. The embodiment of this, as many Christians see it, was Hariri himself, who dominated the postwar scene and, with regional and international backing, consolidated a system in which Christians felt they were being shunted aside. Again, this reading, along with the whitewash of the Syrian role in the sidelining of Christians, is crude, but it has resonance among quite a few in the community.

Part of the problem is that these views have been grafted onto past attitudes towards the Sunnis — always perceived as the dominant sect in the region with little tolerance for minorities. To Christians the Ottoman Empire was an instrument of Sunni domination. Similarly, Arab nationalism was later regarded as a mechanism for Sunni ascendancy in the guise of a secular ideology, while support for the Palestinian cause was a byword for a Sunni yearning to control Lebanon before the Civil War.

That’s not to say there were no Christian Ottomanists, Arab nationalists, or pro-Palestinians. But to many Christians all these ideologies or political positions were mainly a facade for Sunni sectarian ambitions and solidarity. And while it’s easy to mock Christian paranoia, Ottomanism, Arab nationalism and support for the Palestinians did frequently reflect, even personify, the attitudes of the Sunni majority in the region.

That is why many Christians regarded Hariri’s political promotion in 1992 as a further stage in this process — the consequence of a political arrangement between the Assad regime in Syria and Saudi Arabia. When the Christian boycott of parliamentary elections in 1992 was ignored, it brought home to many in the community how inconsequential they had become.

Their bitterness, which Aoun has spent the last decade exploiting, never quite left, even if it is difficult to generalize. But Aoun’s success in mobilizing voters against Saad Hariri and the Future Movement in two elections, like Samir Geagea’s great sensitivity to seeing several of his parliamentarians brought into parliament thanks to Sunni votes, shows that the uneasiness with Sunnis is more widespread than we imagined.  

However, what Christians must not do is fall into the trap of imagining that an alliance with Shiites against the Sunnis is the solution. Other than the fact that it may undermine the principles of the Lebanese system of power-sharing and coexistence, it also implicitly means aligning with Hezbollah and Iran against a majority in the Arab world. The costs of such a foolish position are potentially very high, when Christians would do far better by maintaining close ties to all.

Between 1975 and 1984, Christians, by fighting the Palestinians and aligning with Israel, also found themselves isolated, against a Sunni majority in the region. The results were catastrophic and by 1990 they paid the heaviest price for peace in Lebanon. History teaches us a lot. Christians would do best to read it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Party nepotism hinders Aoun’s wider ambitions

Last week in Lebanon, Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of the Christian politician Michel Aoun, was effectively handed the presidency of the Free Patriotic Movement, when Mr Bassil’s only real rival in the presidential election scheduled for next month withdrew from the race. The rival, Alain Aoun, is Michel Aoun’s nephew, and his decision seemed anything but voluntary.

Alain Aoun and Mr Bassil do not like each other and their electoral contest represented a clash between different visions for the Aounist movement. Yet Michel Aoun did not relish a confrontation as he favoured a Bassil win. The former general has long sought to make his son-in-law his political heir, facilitating his appointment to lucrative ministerial posts destined to increase Mr Bassil’s patronage power.

The official Aounist version was that both candidates were going to receive a substantial share of the vote in September, so that allowing an election would only have split the Aounists. This did not seem persuasive, however, since a fair, democratic vote could only have strengthened their organisation.

More likely there was another reason. Unconfirmed reports recently indicated that polls among the Aounists showed Alain Aoun winning. Facing this unwanted outcome, Michel Aoun asked Alain to retire. It remains unclear what quid pro quo convinced Alain Aoun to do so. He may be appointed a vice president of the Free Patriotic Movement.

Then there is the matter that in recent months Mr Bassil changed the internal rules of the organisation to strengthen the president’s prerogatives with regard to the politburo, with an eye to consolidating his position once he won.

Yet when the initial announcement was made that Alain Aoun had stepped down, there were reports that the party’s bylaws would be changed again to curb the president’s powers. That could have been the compromise, but it remains to be seen, as Michel Aoun would not have arranged his son-in-law’s victory only to approve of bylaws limiting his authority.

Whatever Michel Aoun does, he leaves a movement whose leaders are divided. When he withdrew from the race, Alain Aoun said he feared that if elections went ahead they would reflect “a dangerous omen of division that may threaten the unity of the Free Patriotic Movement in the post-elections stage”.

The remarks revealed the rifts at the heart of the organisation. For years certain militants of the Free Patriotic Movement, especially a group based in France, have called for democratic elections. Indeed, after Alain Aoun’s announcement, one of them, Fares Louis, declared his intention of standing against Mr Bassil in September, to ensure a contest took place.

In truth, the Free Patriotic Movement has been undemocratic, though it portrays itself as the opposite. Michel Aoun has maintained tight control over his movement, engaging in open nepotism by backing the advancement of his sons-in-law – Mr Bassil; Shamel Roukoz, whom the Aounists have put forward as a candidate for the post of army commander; and Roy Hashem, who heads the Aounists’ OTV television station.

The avoidance of an electoral contest was important for Michel Aoun. Had the election been divisive, it might have weakened him at a crucial moment in his political manoeuvrings. He continues to want to impose himself as Lebanese president, and for a year and a half has prevented the election of a president by parliament to blackmail the political class into voting for him.

Mr Aoun has also continued to insist on Mr Roukoz’s appointment, hindering government action as leverage to do so. However, the defence minister recently extended the term of the current army commander, angering Mr Aoun. And Aounist ministers insist that the prime minister, Tammam Salam, is exploiting the presidential vacuum to usurp the Maronite Christian president’s powers and sideline Christians.

Mr Aoun’s obstructionism has led some to believe that he, along with Hizbollah, is seeking to alter Lebanon’s governance system to replace it with a system that may grant Christians more autonomy, albeit lessening their shares in the central state. If true, Mr Aoun is taking a risk, as many Christians will hesitate before seeing their representation in the state reduced.

The Aounist presidential election implicitly confirms that the era of Michel Aoun is nearing its end. Though spry, the general is 80 years old. But he still has the ability to express Christian fears of Sunni empowerment. Such fears have been exacerbated by the progress of Sunni extremists in Syria. This has made more palatable his alliance with Hizbollah, which many Christians view as a barrier against extremists.

But in doing so, Mr Aoun has highlighted a contradiction in his position. By manipulating sectarian fears he cannot expect to become a national consensus candidate for president. Ironically, while the general has successfully pushed the careers of family members, he has systematically failed when trying to do it for himself.

Friday, August 21, 2015

What’s up, Doc? - Did Future even notice that Samir Geagea had left them?

It is remarkable how invisible was the reaction of the Future Movement when its Christian partner Samir Geagea signed a declaration of intent with the Free Patriotic Movement. How different from Hezbollah, which has determinedly kept Michel Aoun happy to ensure he does not abandon his alliance with the party.

Geagea’s decision to effectively jump ship on the remnants of March 14 was less dramatic than Walid Jumblatt’s in 2009, but no less significant. It showed that the Lebanese Forces leader sees little potential in his alliance with the main Lebanese Sunni organization. That does not mean Geagea’s relations with Future are over. Rather, he has expanded his political options.

Future may find that this will come back to haunt the Sunnis. The country is moving toward an overhaul of the constitution to replace the post-Taif political order with one weighed against Sunnis. And in this context Geagea’s treatment as a poor relative by the Future Movement, particularly since Saad Hariri’s departure from Lebanon in 2011, has been a grave mistake. The head of the Future Bloc, Fouad al-Siniora never visits the Lebanese Forces leader and is not well-attuned to the Christian mood. Nor, unlike Hassan Nasrallah, has he considered it vital to work hard to maintain a strategic partnership with Christians to protect his own community against the demands of the other main Muslim community.

Nasrallah’s speech last week was a clear indicator of what Hezbollah seeks to achieve. As the situation in Syria turns to the party’s disadvantage, Hezbollah and Lebanon’s Shiites will have to brace for a Sunni backlash and sense of empowerment. The only way Hezbollah can protect itself is to change the balance of representation in Taif to ensure a structural majority for Shiites and Christians. To win over Christian backing, Hezbollah may very well agree to go along with the idea of a highly decentralized administrative system, which has long been a core Christian demand.

Hezbollah’s ambition is why, for Nasrallah, gaining Christian support remains so essential. And it explains his keen defense of Michel Aoun last week, when the Hezbollah leader insisted the party would not allow the general to be isolated or “broken.”

As many have observed, the most likely way for Hezbollah to reinforce itself in the state is to alter the 50-50 Christian-Muslim balance in Taif and redistribute sectarian shares so that Sunnis, Shiites and Maronites each have roughly a third of representation in parliament and government. Shares of the smaller sects would be adjusted in this general framework.

In that way, Christians and Shiites would retain a permanent two-thirds majority over Sunnis, allowing Hezbollah to shield itself from within the state. Many Christians would be reassured, feeling this would protect them against a Sunni wave in the region, which they believe — rightly or wrongly — would lead to the marginalization of minorities.

Indeed, many Christians today favor a highly-decentralized system in Lebanon precisely because they have misgivings about their future in a Muslim-majority country. But it is also true that most feel more reassured by the Shiites — a minority in the region like them — than they do by the Sunnis, whom they associate, quite simplistically and undiscerningly, with higher levels of religious extremism.

In this complicated sectarian climate, Future would only gain by having Christian partners in order to better moderate Christian attitudes. That’s because fear will lead Christians to make decisions that may undermine the reflexes of sectarian compromise and power-sharing at the heart of the political system.  

One wonders whether some officials in the Future Movement have fully absorbed the meaning of the presidential vacuum. It goes far beyond Hezbollah’s wanting to bring Aoun to office and by now this should be perfectly obvious.

Hezbollah and Aoun are collaborating in an effort to change Taif and the post-Taif system. Each has his own reasons for doing so, but the larger objective is the same: to amend a political arrangement that both believe is to their disadvantage and to the advantage of the Sunni community. What matters here is not the reality of Taif’s uneven implementation, which has harmed all sides at times, but perceptions. And these Michel Aoun and Hassan Nasrallah have successfully manipulated in pursuit of their aims.

There are senior officials in the Future Movement who are openly admitting that Taif is dead, so no one can plead ignorance. If so, it’s time for Future to give added weight and recognition to its Christian counterparts. Otherwise, before long we will see the likes of Geagea and the Gemayels opening a dialogue with Hezbollah, which has shown a greater inclination to take Christian anxieties seriously.

This situation reflects more than anything else the end of March 14. The coalition has had many deaths, but the breakdown of cross-confessional collaboration buries it once and for all. When Samir Geagea went his own way he was confirming such finality. The Lebanese Forces leader will henceforth take his own political path, and at no time was this more evident than last week when he and his followers said little about the anti-Sunni slogans of the Aounists.

It’s a fact that Hezbollah is out-maneuvering Future on the Christian front. Christians err if they believe that taking sides in the inter-Muslim rivalry will benefit them, but that won’t stop them from trying. For Christians, true security lies in protecting themselves behind a wall of Sunni and Shiite moderation, in a society where all communities interact and coexist as equals.

But that’s not what is happening on the ground. Instead of encouraging Christians in this direction, the moderate Sunnis of the Future Movement are allowing Hezbollah to take the initiative and advance its own divisive agenda. The Lebanese political system has always relied on mutual sensibility. That is missing today, and it’s a shame that Future suffers more from this failing than Hezbollah.