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.   

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