Saturday, October 13, 2007

Lebanon Praliament: Will They Vote or Demolish The House

Palm Beach Gardens, Florida


It is presidential election countdown time in Lebanon but the parliament that votes is a divided house. Will the legislature vote or demolish the House?

What is the matter? Sectarian power sharing is out of date. Resource management is corrupt. National defense is weak. Foreign powers and neighbors are too active. And there is more danger: an out-of-control budget deficit.

Allied with a secular Christian party, Hezbollah leads the opposition and election politics center on its future. In an atmosphere of panic the legislature is due to vote on October 23 for a new chief of the nation. Time is running out for a seamless process of voting.

There is political paralysis. A handicapped cabinet duels robotically with a dizzy opposition.

Will the elections usher-in new stability to the country or will they lead to renewed civil war? Speculations about the future of Lebanon are wild and confusing. The International Crisis Group report of October 10 may help us unravel the complexity of the situation.

ICG reports that despite the economic pain it has inflicted on society by staging a ten month sit-in strike in the capital, Hezbollah remains uniformly popular among the Shiites and supportable among a significant segment of the Christian community.

However, ICG adds that today Hezbollah, the Resistance, is under growing political and logistical pressures making it more amenable to historic compromise. The ICG argues that Hezbollah would welcome relief from growing challenges that have come its way since the devastating war with Israel in the summer of 2006. The report explains that the Resistance Movement, is now restricted in military mobility by the deployment of the Lebanese army and the UNIFIL in the south.

The Movement has to rebuild the south and the capital suburbs that were hit hard in a honorific war that had no winners. It has to maintain the support of people who have suffered from the war. It has to convince the Lebanese society that it is not sectarian; it has to show that it is defending the entire country; that it has a regional scope of influence; that it is a Lebanese rather than an Iranian agency, or a Syrian stooge. It is worried about a new war with Israel in which Lebanese society may not give it the same warm shelter it received last year.

ICG concludes in the report that Hezbollah is ready to make a deal with the Lebanese government, a deal that would be partially accommodating to the idea of paramilitary resistance but firm on state authority. ICG recommends the following specific measures in a more complicated format:

- Resistance for defense not attack: Hezbollah’s militia is authorized for some limited time to help the Lebanese army in defense against foreign attacks.
- Equidistant president: The rival parties agree on a consensus candidate that would respect the resistance on one hand, and comply with existing international resolutions that guarantee state sovereignty.
- International Court: Acquiescence of all parties to support the work of an international court for investigation of political murder,
- Strong National defense: National defense will be coordinated to strengthen the Lebanese army.
- Respect for and from Syria: Equitable relations with Syria should be set up including defined borders and control of illegal arms’ trafficking.
- Sheba Farm: Government will actively lobby to first reclaim and then liberate Israeli occupied Sheba Farm territory.

These recommendations reveal logic and fairness but since when has Lebanese politics been informed and guided by reason. We have reached the countdown period of the coming elections yet no acceptable candidates have emerged. It is one thing to have failed elections and it is another to have abortive elections leading to civil war.

Out of fear of the future, and out of public shame, local politicians are back on a track of dialogue in search of a solution. In recent weeks political rhetoric on both sides has calmed down. Majority leader Saad Harriri improved the political climate on September 25 when he started a series of contacts with Nabih Berri, Berri playing two contrasting roles: the parliament Speaker and the opposition diplomat. Furthermore, the Maronite church has convened Christian leaders from the opposition and the government side urging them to choose a unifying candidate. Is the Patriarch now massaging Hezbollah’s Christian partner, General Michel Aoun, to abandon his ambition for the presidency in return for a post in the new cabinet?

To understand the total picture one has to look beyond the local scene. We are often reminded that the elections are not only about a choice of a national leader. Lebanese elections reflect local compliance with contradictory foreign pressure: US and Saudi policy from one side and covert dictates of Syria and Iran from another. The Americans, who support the Lebanese government, have zero tolerance for militia formation. But the US government has minimal sensitivity to daily Israeli intrusion into Lebanese air space. A million US made cluster bombs are left unexploded in the south of Lebanon from the Israeli bombardment of last summer. Lebanon is in a sense a victim of contradictory US foreign policy, on one side, and mischievous Syrian/Iranian involvement in Beirut.

More importantly, the US is taking a hard line with Hezbollah’s regional partners, Syria and Iran. There are no signs that Washington is treating Syria with sufficient diplomatic respect. Syria is not invited with warmth to the November Middle East peace conference that will take place in Annapolis, Maryland. The priority concern of Syria is the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. Annapolis will not deal with the Golan. Similarly the US pressure on Iran for its nuclear program is heating up as Washington tries its best to expand future international economic sanctions on Iran.

Syria’s adversaries in Lebanon used to be tame; not any more. Harriri, possible heir apparent to the position of the next prime minister, continues to irritate Syria. Harriri advances steps for the set up of the International Court to investigate his father’s assassination in 2005. For good reasons, the work of the International Court is a threat to Syria; and the hype surrounding this court naturally does not promote Lebanese-Syrian relations. Harriri’s verbal attack on Syria and Iran does not match his recent gestures of diplomacy toward the opposition in Beirut.

As mentioned earlier, Saudi Arabia is also involved in the Lebanese game. On October 11, Speaker Berri announced in public that he wished Syria and Saudi Arabia would resolve their differences over Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab countries are supporting the government and wary of Hezbollah’s militarism.

Manipulative international pressure leads the Lebanese statesmen to work covertly. Let us hope that behind closed doors a deal is being made today or the day after to make the Lebanese elections happen. If the ISG report captures the scene correctly, neither the government nor the opposition is likely to have their most favored candidates screened for the October 23 event, if elections were to occur.

Moderation is the order of the day. Should there be a hidden compromise in the works the chances are slim for the election of General Michel Aoun, the opposition candidate, or Nassib Lahoud and Boutros Harb, the two candidates of the ruling coalition. Three “moderate” independent candidates for the presidency are talked about. Listed in the order of their chances for winning the post of the next president, who by tradition is a Christian, are these three Maronite figures: General Michel Suleiman, Riad Salameh and Robert Ghanem.

Predicting the Lebanese elections is taking too much risk. So far opinions remain frozen and the elections may even have to be postponed again for two weeks or so. When diplomacy fails and when reason falters military solutions gain strength. We have come very close to the election dates without a consensus candidate and without an agreement on new ways of doing “business”. In this deadlock context General Michel Suleiman may have quietly become the candidate of default to maintain law and order and to prevent a messy confrontation of wills. As chief of the army, Suleiman defeated the terror-insurgents in Nahr al Bared this summer.

Moreover, Suleiman is externally friendly to the Syrian regime, and at the same time, he has recently gained respect from Washington for his anti-terror success in face of a sectarian AlQaeda-like insurgency. Washington’s compromise in Lebanon at the end of the day may painfully evolve as a response to the threat of the spread of terrorism should the system collapse. Nahr al Bared was a foretaste of what might happen if political vacuum is institutionalized by abortive elections and its aftermath of chaotic power grabbing.

When society panics the military looks heroic. Has Washington and Damascus finally agreed to let Lebanon skip this round of political unraveling? Or are we to witness more “interesting” times?

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