Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Against all odds, Lebanon keeps strife at bay

Lebanon has been without a president since last May, and the negative implications are beginning to dawn on Christian leaders. Yet filling this vacuum is just one of a series of challenges the country will be facing in the coming months.

When Michel Sleiman’s term ended last year, the refusal of leading Christian politicians to rally around a consensual successor effectively prevented an election. The reason is that parliament elects Lebanese presidents, who must come from the Maronite Christian community.

The parliamentary bloc led by Michel Aoun refused to attend election sessions because he wants to obstruct the process until he is chosen himself. Hizbollah’s bloc, in solidarity with Mr Aoun, has done the same, preventing a quorum.

While Mr Aoun’s stubbornness is the apparent reason why a president hasn’t been elected, to most observers the real reason is that Hizbollah wants to delay a vote, and has exploited the Aounists’ tactic to do so. The party’s aim is to await a more propitious time when it can bring in a president who is guaranteed to defend its independent weapons arsenal.

That could come if the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany reach a nuclear accord with Iran. To Hizbollah such an agreement would give Tehran greater political latitude in the region, allowing the pro- Iranian party to bring in the president it wants.

Meanwhile, Maronite figures are realising that even without a president the cabinet is continuing to function. That is why many oppose the efforts of Tammam Salam, the prime minister, to agree to a new cabinet voting process to replace the unanimity now required for decisions. Such a mechanism, they argue, will make the cabinet more efficient, reducing the urgency to elect a president.

The cabinet dispute comes at a bad moment for Lebanon, amid fears that jihadi groups in Syria’s Qalamoun region are planning to destabilise the Lebanese border area. In recent weeks, the Lebanese army has received an influx of weapons from abroad. These are designed to permit Lebanon to defend its borders.

In order to reduce sectarian tensions, the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, and Hizbollah, have been engaged in a dialogue for several weeks. This has taken place despite the ongoing trial of Hizbollah members suspected of assassinating his father Rafik Hariri in 2005. That the Future Movement has gone ahead with the dialogue nonetheless suggests that Saudi Arabia has pushed for it.

While there are fears of radicalisation among poorer Lebanese Sunnis, the security situation has been kept under tight control by the army, the internal security forces and, though it’s mentioned less, by Hizbollah. However, that does not mean there is no anxiety. The presence of some 1.5 million Syrian refugees as well as Salafist groups in the Palestinian refugee camps remains a cause of concern for the Lebanese authorities.

One paradox of the Lebanese situation has been that the country that once stood as the embodiment of sectarian violence has proven remarkably adept at averting it this time around. Lebanon’s different sects have been acutely aware of the dangers of a Sunni-Shia conflict, and have taken steps to alleviate tension.

While countries such as Syria and Iraq have collapsed due to sectarian violence, Lebanon, despite the civil war of 1975-1990, did not break apart. State institutions, though they were marginalised, continued to operate even in the darkest years of hostilities.

That is probably because the Lebanese political elite from the time of independence took into consideration the country’s sectarian differences. It put in place a political system that included power-sharing and compromise. While the system has been deeply dysfunctional at times, it recognised and adapted to Lebanon’s communal complexities.

This is in stark contrast to Arab nationalist regimes in countries, notably Syria and Iraq, that always buried sectarian divisions under a surface of sham secular nationalist unity, usually imposed from above. That is why when both faced sectarian and ethnic conflict, there were few mechanisms in place to resolve differences, facilitating the shattering of the two states.

In the months ahead Lebanon will probably be tested militarily in the border area, even as its cabinet struggles to find a modus vivendi between the different political factions. Hizbollah and Future will pursue their dialogue, even as the first gets drawn further into the maelstrom in Syria. Economically, the country will continue to suffer, as it has for four years.

But even as the Lebanese will sense the proximity of the abyss, their system is more apt than most in the region to absorb its shocks. Too much self-confidence is bad, as anxiety pushes the Lebanese to be conciliatory. But it is a refreshing anomaly that the country expected to be the least resistant to the sectarian anarchy sweeping the region has managed to stay afloat until now.

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