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Lebanon: long live the settlement, the settlement is dead

Public opinion is deeply divided in Lebanon after renewed diplomatic efforts faltered in reaching a settlement over decisions of who will be Prime Minister, as well as the imminent Special Tribunal for Lebanon indictment
Sarah El-Richani
23 January 2011

Tensions in Lebanon are high after renewed diplomatic efforts faltered in reaching a settlement over decisions of who will be Prime Minister, as well as the imminent Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) indictment. The failure of the initial Syrian-Saudi negotiated compromise over the STL, which is reportedly to indict Hezbollah members, led to resignations and the subsequent collapse of the unity government.

As the Lebanese wait for another settlement to crystallize, STL prosecutor announced in a recorded message that the Lebanese “will have to wait a little bit longer” till the pre-trial judge confirms the “confidential” indictment he filed, a process which can take up to 10 weeks.

Hezbollah and its allies, in turn, sent out their own subtle message on Tuesday when black-clad unarmed supporters gathered in some neighbourhoods in Beirut at 5 am and dispersed two hours later. This rehearsal is a clear reminder of the party’s strength, as well as a preview of what may unfold if a deal is not struck before the indictment is made public.

And indeed, it seems this déjà vu was enough to push the reluctant kingmaker Walid Jumblatt, who had recently deserted the March 14 camp and occupied a centrist position, to side with Syria and Hezbollah in the upcoming consultations to elect a new PM. This effectively means that Jumblatt’s party, but not his entire bloc, will therefore vote for the ‘opposition’s’ candidate. Former PM Omar Karami, who has resigned from the post twice in 1992 and 2005, after mass demonstrations protesting the collapse of the currency and the assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri respectively, is tipped to be the ‘opposition’s’ leading candidate.

This latest shift of allegiance from the Druze leader, justifiably referred to as Lebanon’s weathervane, came only a few days after he dubbed the hasty resignations a “mistake” and was preparing to grant popular caretaker PM Hariri his bloc’s votes, out of respect for the Sunni’s choices. The Mufti of the republic also announced that Hariri, the head of the largest parliamentary bloc, is the Sunni candidate for the position of PM, further enflaming sectarian sensitivities, particularly along the Sunni-Shi’ite axis.

What is also at stake here is a principle  – ‘respecting sects’ choices’ – that tends to stunt the quasi-democratic process, reducing it to a system of bartering between members of a sectarian, feudal elite cartel. This sectarian ‘principle’ was set to one side during the presidential elections in 2008, which saw the election of a consensus president after a six-month impasse and presidential vacancy. But it was reinforced in June 2009, in the re-election of the Shi’ite Speaker of parliament.

The postponement of the consultations by a week therefore played into the ‘opposition’s’ hands as they managed, by hook or by crook, to push Jumblatt out of his corner. Although Hariri’s team has announced that they will not request another postponement, this may still be likely, as the President will want to evade blame for accidentally gifting the premiership to the opposition by postponing the consultations and giving them adequate time to cajole the kingmaker.

What is almost definite however is that the Syrian-Saudi settlement is now on its deathbed, despite intensified efforts by the Turkish, Syrian and Qatari leaders to resuscitate it. On Thursday, the caretaker PM announced that the opposition is adamant on ousting him completely, but that he is to remain a candidate.

The show-down will therefore be very tight depending on the direction in which independent MPs vote. Hariri may lose out by a few votes. Yet, whatever the outcome, a return to a unity government seems unlikely at this stage. The so-called March 14 camp would most likely keep its distance from a Hezbollah-Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) cabinet bent on disavowing the STL by withdrawing funding and the Lebanese judges from the Hague and overturning the memorandum of understanding between the Lebanese government and the tribunal. According to Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah these were the conditions in the aborted settlement, in exchange for closing the ‘false witnesses’ dossier which Hezbollah and its allies were keen on having referred to the judicial council.

While these measures will not annul the STL, as Nasrallah acknowledged, it would at least distance Lebanon from the process, further question its legitimacy and render any arrest warrants even more difficult to act upon.

In the unlikely case that Hariri is re-elected, the March 14 camp in the interest of stability would attempt to form a unity cabinet, a difficult and time-consuming task. Officially though, the choleric FPM leader General Michel Aoun, overlooking some of his corrupt allies, has vociferously denounced PM Hariri as incompetent and corrupt. The Hezbollah Secretary General was calmer but just as resolute, announcing on Sunday evening that they will no longer accept a government which is silent, let alone incriminated in the ‘false witnesses’ dossier.  This came a day after New TV, an independent opposition TV channel, aired a leaked recording of Hariri speaking to an identified false witness. This and parts of his testimony where he attacked foes and allies alike has left the caretaker PM embarrassed.

Hezbollah’s Secretary General then retraced the reasons for the collapse of the Syrian-Saudi settlement and the subsequent resignations from the cabinet. He blamed direct US intervention for the Saudi withdrawal and Hariri’s meeting with US president Barack Obama and officials for the sudden change of heart. This instigated the sudden and hasty resignation of more than a third of a largely paralyzed cabinet last week after they realized that stalling was no longer an option, due to the imminent indictment. Though generally framed as a Hezbollah pull-out, it is worth noting that the resignations included, amongst others, the most popular Christian party headed by Michel Aoun, as well as one independent Shi’ite minister from the president’s bloc who unsurprisingly toed his confessional group’s line.

As mentioned in my last article, Nasrallah and many in Lebanon have posed pertinent questions about the legitimacy of the STL as well its possible politicization. In a riveting lecture to hundreds at the American University of Beirut last Friday, Norman Finkelstein reiterated some of those doubts.  “Why does justice [in the Middle East] begin and end with Hariri?” he asked to loud cheers and applause from most - but not all - in the audience.

Both the indictment and the possible disavowal of the STL by the Lebanese Government will receive a similar response, for public opinion is deeply divided on these fronts. Potentially unifying concerns, such as the rising prices and a general frustration with the frequent electricity cuts and water shortages are also approached warily. Many fear that demonstrations planned by independents and trade unions in coming weeks may, as in May 2008, spark yet another round of ‘civil scuffles’, to use a typical Lebanese euphemism.

We have commenced the final countdown for this round. Diplomatic and local efforts are racing against the imminent confirmation of the indictment to resolve the Government crisis. Meanwhile some Lebanese, weary of the political bickering, the demagoguery and speculations, have resorted to citing star fortune-teller Michel Hayek’s predictions. Sadly, his crystal ball is just as murky. 

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