Lebanon: calm before the storm?

The momentous events of 2011 in the Arab world have widely overshadowed Lebanon. With neighbour Syria continuing to be embroiled in unrest and growing sectarian civil conflict, Lebanon's future is full of opportunities and risks.
Filippo Dionigi
31 December 2011

The momentous events of 2011 in the Arab world have largely overshadowed those of Lebanon. Somewhat isolated from the wave that hit the region, one of the most precarious states of the Levant has remained substantially stable.

One major event was the fall of Saad Hariri’s government in January 2011. In the midst of the regional turmoil, it took a few months before a new government could be formed. The new executive leans towards the March 8 Alliance and its Syrian patron, reinforced by a parliamentary majority shift which has seen the Druze component of the parliament leaving Hariri’s coalition to get closer to the March 8 formation.  At the helm of the government is Najib Mikati, a Lebanese tycoon for the second time in office and with many links to Syria. Mikati has shown a certain astuteness in containing the international isolation to which Lebanon is susceptible, and also in heading up a litigatious cabinet.

The domestic political debate

He overcame a major hurdle a few weeks ago when Lebanon made its contribution to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a UN mandated court investigating the killing of Rafiq Hariri in 2005. The same issue had been instrumental in the fall of Saad Hariri’s government a few months previously, when Hezbollah and its allies of the Free Patriotic Movement pulled out of the government.

Meanwhile, the country even witnessed some minor advances such as the approval of a policy for enhancing the provision of electricity to the population. Political discussion is currently focused on the passing of a decree regarding an increase in salaries. Furthermore the parliament will soon vote on the Human Rights National Plan, the implementation of which would represent a significant change both for Lebanese society and for the state. 

The human rights debate in Lebanon has also shone a spotlight on a law campaigned for from within civil society, which is attempting to criminalize violence against women and marital rape. But the prospects of addressing this major legal loophole are menaced by the more conservative sectors of the society, in particular religious Muslim authorities and their political counterparts, who see the law as interfering with the judicial sphere of religious courts. Another urgent issue regards the conditions of detention of thousands of Lebanese in jail which has provoked protests inside and outside prisons and which may end up with an amnesty, a reform of certain aspects of the penal code or the hastened application of full pre-trial legal guarantees.

The Human Rights National Plan has some chances of being approved, says Ghassan Moukhaiber, a Lebanese MP of the Free Patriotic Movement, who has been active in the human rights debate and on whose office wall Zola’s J’Accuse hangs prominently, “But the real challenge will be its implementation.”  An interesting speculation is whether Lebanon could take advantage of the relative quiet of these months (especially with Syria distracted by its dramatic situation) to take its own fresher approach to reforms.

As Tunisia and Egypt had to get rid of their dictators, Lebanon too needs to free itself from its own tyrant - the political system in which it has been trapped for too long. The Human Rights Action Plan - the product of five years' cooperation bewteen the UN, the Lebanese Parliament and Lebanese human rights organizations - could be a first if small step forward in this direction.

Hezbollah’s troubles

On other crucial aspects the domestic situation seems to stall. The question of Hezbollah’s weapons remains off the agenda and the need to reform the electoral law has been so far ignored, although proposals are being discussed at the civil society level. The approval of STL funding signals a weaker Hezbollah, interested in maintaining the government as it is rather then risking a political crisis with uncertain perspectives. This could be the time for the opponents of Hezbollah, nationally and internationally, to try to find compromises on some of these issues that divide them, trying to attain results that could be more difficult to achieve otherwise.

Hezbollah’s situation is indeed a difficult one. Regional developments and the indictment of four of its members by the STL (another momentous event for Lebanon this year) represent major challenges. The Syrian crisis has put the Shiite movement in an uncomfortable position. Whereas it supported the uprising in Egypt, Tunis, Libya and Bahrain; Hezbollah has taken a defensive stance towards its Syrian ally. The movement is torn apart between its political identity promoting resistance and liberation and its strategic constraints as Syrian ally and member of the “Axis of Resistance”.  How Hezbollah will come out of the 2011 events is difficult to say. Its support to the Syrian regime has exacted a significant cost in political capital and it is hard to imagine how it can recover popularity, in a region galvanized by the fall of three dictators with more, seemingly, to come.

Two months ago, Hezbollah member and MP Aly Fayyad told me that the Political Document of Hezbollah, announced by its Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in 2009, is part of a more extensive text which is in the process of being endorsed by the Hezbollah Majlis al Shura  (the assembly  at the apex of its hierarchy). This could be the sign of a more 'political' Hezbollah emerging, and trying to clear the way in terms of a political agenda to prepare for a scenario in which the Shiite movement may become more similar to the Islamist parties which we are seeing gain momentum in these months in Egypt or Tunisia.  

 Its military component, nonetheless, is highly resilient and at odds with any political normalisation; but an important sign was the redefinition of 'resistance' as a mere instrument of deterrence. If conditions permit, international political actors should try to facilitate Hezbollah’s transition towards its full political normalisation rather than further alienating it and attempting to provoke reaction from its military wing.

Signs of a deteriorating situation?

The dramatic Syrian situation remains the most uncertain variable. Change in Syria can very possibly redraw the geopolitical map of the region. Among various factors, what makes Syrian events so different is the fact that the regime to fall is not a western ally but a key element of the “Axis of Resistance” (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah). The falling of Bashar al Asad’s regime - however it took place - would shake the foundations of the precarious regional balance at the detriment of the Syrian/Iranian camp. In contrast to what happened in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya - which did not seem to alter in the short term the regional configuration - al-Asad’s departure leaves a strategic void which the conflicting parts in the region will try to fill with more determination than elsewhere.

If Syrian unrest increasingly assumes the character of a sectarian civil conflict, the Lebanese factions will need to exercise an unprecedented amount of self-restraint to avoid a spill-over of the conflict from Syria to Lebanon. Furthermore, recent attacks against UNIFIL troops in the south of Lebanon and the shooting of rockets across the border with Israel, are destabilizing phenomena meant to alert us to the possible escalation of the conflict to a wider regional conflagration; although both Israel and Hezbollah have so far resisted falling into the trap of these provocations, and are showing no particular appetite for a renewed conflict at this stage.

While this remains the case, Lebanon’s apparent calm harbours as many opportunities as risks.

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