Governance: Beirut edges towards stability

29 August 2008
The first meeting of Lebanon’s government of national unity after 18 months of deadlock offers evidence that the country’s rival political factions are finally willing to work together.

In Lebanon, events can gather momentum with dizzying speed, even after long periods of inertia. In May, Hezbollah took control of Beirut’s vital arteries, rolling convoys of pick-up trucks filled with paramilitaries into the Lebanese capital and threatening to bring down the government. Now it is the armoured vehicles and Hummers of the Lebanese Army that patrol the streets. The tent city used by pro-Western activists to blockade downtown cafes and offices in protest at Hezbollah’s incursion has been dismantled, replaced by throngs of oblivious tourists.

The Lebanese parliament has not been convened for more than a year, but there is a palpable sense in the country that the political divisions that have undermined it for so long are beginning to be resolved. It has taken an outsider, Qatar, to bring this about, its gov-ernment lobbying Lebanon’s polarised political factions into reaching an accord in Doha on 21 May.

Bypassing ideology

In terms of global politics, Qatar is a small player. But in brokering a solution to the political deadlock in Lebanon, temporary though it may be, Doha has opened up a new path that it is hoped can bypass the region’s ideology-driven politics.

The deal provides for the formation of a national unity government in which the Hezbollah-led opposition has the power of veto, a framework electoral law that will enable parliamentary elections in 2009, and the election of an interim president, Michel Suleiman.

The granting of a veto to Hezbollah and its allies was the main sticking point in the formation of the government, leading to a delay of 18 months. That the pro-Western March 14 coalition led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora finally conceded the point, reflects the impact of the military action Hezbollah took in May.

Hezbollah took a huge gamble, risking large-scale clashes in the capital and jeopardising its moral high ground. But to a large degree, it has achieved its aims. It has made clear what it is willing to fight about: its existence, its arms, its telecommunications. More importantly, it has made clear that it can win the fight.

“Hezbollah used its military power to defeat the March 14 movement and change the situation on the ground,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, a thinktank based in Beirut. “The new reality is that March 14 and the US/Saudi-backed plan [for a pro-Western government] is no longer in action. They have had to accept compromise and co-existence.”

Despite the compromise, political tensions are still close to the surface. Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli, remains the scene of sectarian violence and sporadic fighting between security forces and Islamist militants. Most recently, a bomb detonated in the northern city on 13 August, killing at least 18 people. But the mood in the country is still more optimistic than it was 18 months ago.

The key factor behind this mood of optimism is President Suleiman. A former adjutant of the last president, Emile Lahoud, Suleiman was widely believed to be Syria’s number one choice, raising the suspicions of the March 14 movement, which would have preferred an unequivocally pro-Western candidate to take the reins.

But both sides supported Suleiman’s election and Hezbollah sees him as a compromise candidate. “This is a president who cannot be regarded by either side as their enemy or opponent, unlike president Lahoud, who was seen as partisan,” says Salem.

“Even before his appointment, what was most visible about his personality was his desire to maintain a middle ground, and how this affected his decision making.”

Cautious approach

Suleiman has maintained healthy relations with all parties and factions, though his use of the army has divided opinion. From 1998 until his election as president, Suleiman was commander of the armed forces and his quashing of the Fatah al-Islam uprising in the refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in 2007, when 180 Lebanese soldiers were killed, earned him a lot of respect.

But since becoming president, his unwillingness to fan the flames of unrest through the use of force has brought criticism that he is too cautious. In May, many blamed him for not stopping Hezbollah’s attack on Beirut. At the end of July, reports of violent clashes in the Sunni stronghold of Tripoli flashed across TV screens in the West, bringing back memories of the civil war. Although the clashes were greeted with little more than mild concern on the streets of Beirut, many faulted the army for not intervening sooner.

Questions also remain over how Suleiman will engage with the upcoming parliamentary elections. According to Salem, it is possible that, along with some allies, he might attempt to secure a small but powerful bloc for himself, adding yet another element to the political arena. So far, Suleiman has been reluctant to show his hand.

In the past few weeks, the interim government has begun to take shape. On 12 August, parliament voted 100-5 in favour of a new cabinet, comprising 11 members of the Hezbollah-led alliance and 16 from Siniora’s Western-backed majority. President Suleiman named three further members.

The most urgent task for this new cabinet is to establish an electoral law, which must be done by autumn at the latest. A draft law, passed in June 2006, outlines a series of proposals for the legislation, ranging from lowering the voting age and enabling expatriate voting to the creation of an independent electoral management body.

The most contentious aspect of the proposed changes is the introduction of proportional representation. Under the system, 51 MPs would be elected by proportional representation across Lebanon’s six governorates, with the occupants of the remaining 77 seats elected locally by a simple majority. Voters would cast two ballots: one local and one regional. Such a system, it is hoped, would encourage the substitution of issue-driven voting for the sectarianism that has characterised elections in the past.

“The divisions will now be more political than sectarian,” says one analyst. “There are sectarian aspects to it for sure, there are sec-tarian leaders and those who use sectarianism to promote themselves, but it is too simplistic to read a sectarian analysis of politics in Lebanon, and it does not reflect the reality on the ground.”

Changing from a system of patronage politics will not be easy, but in the current climate, many are hopeful.

“The people do not have the stomach for another civil war,” says one source in Beirut. “Perhaps this is why Hezbollah was able to march on downtown [Beirut], but no one fought it.”

A political crossroads

A common Lebanese saying goes: “When God created Lebanon, the angels wondered at its varied beauty - its sun-baked beaches and snow-covered mountains, fertile fields and fresh springs. ‘Why have you favoured the Lebanese above all others,’ the angels asked? ‘Wait until you see the neighbours,’ God responded.”

Lebanon will be watching its neighbours closely. Since 2005, it has ejected the troops of one, only to see the other invade. Officially, Syria and Israel are still at war, but there have been overtures towards peace. Indirect talks to ease the longstanding tensions between the two countries over the Golan Heights have been taking place behind closed doors, brokered by another regional player, Turkey. Some sources speculate that Syria may even be willing to let the territory go.

While the process is still embryonic, the very fact that talks are in progress has changed Lebanon’s political environment. Any success could force it into a position where it has to talk to Israel. If this happens, the country, and in particular Hezbollah, would have some serious questions to ask itself.

With Hezbollah a part of the government of national unity, Beirut must develop a national defence strategy that incorporates the clear organisational strengths of the militant group, and keeps the decision-making process in the hands of the state. Credible answers will also be needed to the recurrent threat of Israeli attacks in the south.

Establishing normal relations with Syria would be a solid first step. On 13 August, Beirut and Damascus agreed to establish diplomatic relations for the first time. But such a move will not please everyone. Many Lebanese still blame Damascus for the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and, although no evidence has been found to link the Syrian regime to his death, bitter feelings still abound.

Lebanon is at a crossroads. It must decide whether to rely on regional alliances with Iran and Syria, a strong army and resistance forces such as Hezbollah, or to put its faith in the protection of the West. “This is the choice that will be determined in the 2009 elections,” says one analyst.

Some argue that the decision is not as stark. A win for one bloc or the other would have repercussions, says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, but the spirit of accommodation established at the Doha accord should persist. The most likely outcome, he says, is a complex agreement between factions.

Lebanon’s future stability will also be influenced by regional considerations. “The issue
of Hezbollah will not go away unless there is some regional progress,” says one London-based analyst. “Lebanon cannot solve this problem on its own. We are benefiting from a general lull in the region. But the region in general, and Lebanon in particular, is in an unresolved status quo.”

At the forthcoming elections in 2009, Lebanon must decide whether to put its faith in its customary regional affiliations or in West. Whatever it chooses is unlikely to work without stability in the region.

A MEED Subscription...

Subscribe or upgrade your current package to support your strategic planning with the MENA region’s best source of business information. Proceed to our online shop below to find out more about the features in each package.

Get Notifications