Archive for March, 2008
A Blind Assessment: Communal Perspectives and Political Conjecture
The kidnapping saga involving Ziad Qabalan and Ziad Ghandour has come to a catastrophic end as their dead bodies were discovered yesterday in the Shouf region. This tragedy immediately acquired political overtones, perhaps inevitably, because of the timing and individuals concerned. It is rumored that Qabalan, a Sunni Muslim, was abducted in response to the killing of Adnan Shamas, a Shi’ite Muslim youth, during the clashes that occurred in and around Beirut Arab University on January 25th. Fears of retaliation have resulted in repeated calls for calm by leaders from both political camps, and while this is reassuring, the path forward is perhaps already slipping away. That is, control of the situation – and whether or not sustained violence occurs – is gradually escaping our political leadership.That is not to say that the collective efforts of the main players within the domestic arena could not significantly reduce the potential for civil strife by ending the political stalemate that has caused this national malaise. A stable domestic situation would significantly reduce the effects of marginal extremists (or external actors, for that matter) by alleviating tribalistic insecurities that make it so easy to manipulate communal interaction in Lebanon. Within the existing political balance however, the zu’ama are slowly being drained of their capacity to control and direct their incited followers. Lebanon is gradually approaching that crucial threshold where the zu’ama, in order to salvage their political livelihoods, finally bend to the will of the people.It matters not who committed these crimes, but who is perceived to have done so. The potential for conflict initiated by renegade groups is precisely why the leaders of March 14th and March 8th must return to the negotiating table. Even if – and the past months have illustrated this – there is no desire (or autonomous capacity) to resolve the internal aspects of the multifaceted stand-off in Lebanon, there should be a realization that conflict, at this point in time, will likely prove catastrophic to the goals of each camp in the near term.The March 14th camp surely realizes that violence will further damage the post-2005 political platform that has dominated its public stance: government reform, moves towards economic prosperity, resisting the Iranian agenda in the Near East, and pressuring the Syrian regime in the international arena (ostensibly to reduce overt political interference in Lebanese affairs). The parties that form this coalition also stand to lose if conflict ensues:
The Future Movement, led by Sa’ad Hariri, has championed its vision of Lebanon as a thriving commercial republic maintaining political neutrality (or perhaps, detached partisanship). Needless to say, this political vision, whether it is based on a coherent strategy for Lebanon or on a communal reaction to growing importance of the Shi’ite community in the Lebanese sphere, would be damaged by violent clashes that would (1) destroy what little politico-economic confidence is left in Lebanon and (2) draw the Sunni community into a conflict with a well-prepared adversary. We see then, that regardless of motivation, conflict is unfavorable at this stage.
The Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) has an interest in resisting Syrian interference in Lebanon – if only because of the vociferous stance that its leader, Walid Jumblatt, has taken vis-à-vis the Ba’athist leadership. At a deeper level, it seems that the Druze community is in the process of converging with the Christians on broader issues relating to the political system in Lebanon and Lebanese foreign policy – this may perhaps be taken to be a result of, again, the growing role of the Shi’ite community. Socio-historical insecurities that long characterized relations between the Druze and Maronites may perhaps be shifting to encompass Druze-Shi’ite relations, especially if one parallels the growth in Shi’ite population and prominence with the phenomenon experienced by the Maronites in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Lebanese Forces party (LF), led by Samir Geagea, most certainly has a desire to oppose the reassertion of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon and – as with the Sunnis and Druze – most likely seeks peace as a prerequisite for a new ‘Merchant Republic’. The LF, as well as the Future Movement and the PSP, has also sought to rebuild state institutions – whatever the motivation for this, it is clear that civil strife would undermine this goal. These goals would be threatened by sustained conflict in Lebanon, as would the goal of Christian consolidation. Let us take a tangent outlining the dilemma facing the Christian community, one that is essential to the resolution of the long-term effects of this stand-off. Contrary to appearances, the split between the LF and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) is not centered on a new divergence regarding Syrian interference in Lebanon – this remains anathema to most Christians. Instead, the current divisions within the Christian community are a result of two factors. Firstly, one must consider the personal struggle between Geagea and Aoun for supremacy, for communal leadership. However, this struggle is rooted in a fundamental divergence regarding the projection of Christian interests within Lebanon and the region. Perhaps this has been arrived at unintentionally, but the split seems to reflect a serious dilemma for the Christian community as a whole: Is it preferable to (A) enter into alliance with the Sunni and Druze communities in order to preserve the sectarian system as it currently exists, more or less, and once again counteract an expansion of the Shi’ite role, or (B) align with the Shi’ite community, arguably uniting the two largest communities within Lebanon and accelerating de-confessionalization? Whatever the intended aims of each camp, civil war would only – as in the past – polarize the Christian community as the prelude has already polarized its leadership.
We see then, that the broader goals of the March 14th camp, as well as the more particular goals of its constituent groups, can only be aided by the avoidance of prolonged conflict. This brings us to the March 8th coalition, which has stressed the importance of fighting corruption in government, guarding against Israeli aggression, and resisting the American agenda in the region. This has entailed opposing the Hariri tribunal as a project, as it has been viewed as a politicized attempt to pressure the Syrian regime. A review of the opposition parties reveals that violence also hampers their narrower goals:
Hezbollah: while this party undoubtedly holds an advantage in military capability, it stands to lose out substantially in an internal conflict. Firstly, such a conflict would merely distract the party from its foreign policy goal of confronting Israel. Secondly, it is difficult to envision how Hezbollah would conduct a war in Lebanon – the potential for gain is limited, and the feasibility of consolidating gains (both territorial and institutional) is, for all practical purposes, negligible. Of course, this neglects the political disaster that the organization would be confronted with: war, in the long-term, would likely damage the remaining multi-communal acceptance that allows Hezbollah to remain effective in confronting Israel. Finally, the internal goals of the organization – enhancing Shi’ite contributions to the decision making process in Lebanon and ensuring a more equitable distribution of resources – could not possibly be advanced without some accommodation from other communities (and other parties within the Shi’ite sect), and it is difficult to envision how war could bring this about in the short-term.
Of all parties involved, AMAL, led by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, is perhaps the least capable of developing an autonomous platform. This is not to say that Berri is bound to the decisions taken by Hezbollah, but that AMAL cannot – at this juncture – distance itself from its current stance without absorbing a serious blow politically. Perhaps growing frustration with the current paralysis will grant Berri the political capital needed for a rapprochement with the March 14th camp.
The FPM has largely maneuvered on the basis of two factors: opposition to the Hariri legacy (on the whole) and the attempted consolidation of Michel Aoun’s position within the Christian community. Aoun has entertained presidential hopes since his return from exile, and at one point could have been considered as the first choice of most Christians, especially Maronites. Support for Aoun has since waned, as he has entered into opposition with Hezbollah and AMAL – this in itself is not as problematic as the manner in which his opposition has translated on the ground. The disturbances in January, combined with his being outmaneuvered by Geagea in the immediate political aftermath, have significantly reduced his direct support amongst Christians (he still benefits from reluctance on the part of many of his former supporters to endorse the LF).
Prospects of sustained violence, it would seem, have no potential to yield substantial gains to any of the parties involved. However, there should be serious worry that these parties will be drawn into the conflict that they should be seeking to avoid. One must wonder how capable these leaders are of restraining people should these sporadic disturbances continue – in fact, the more the leaders try, the more desensitized the population becomes. The opposition surely realizes this and will perhaps ease its stance, especially given the anticipation of conflict within a regional context. Indeed, one must wonder if both camps are biding their time. If this is indeed the case, then we can perhaps expect a return to negotiations soon. This will ease the danger of internal conflict, but should serve as a signal of expectation – the expectation of a regional solution one way or another. Whether this expectation is correct or not is another question best left open to debate.
There are two apparent problems with this solution, from the government’s perspective. Firstly, there is the question of the Hariri tribunal’s viability – this is a core issue in any proposed solution. Secondly, there is the future of the Lebanese Presidency, which is specifically problematic in solutions entailing early elections. It is extremely unlikely that the ruling coalition will agree to a solution that could result in the stalling of the tribunal and/or the loss of the Parliamentary majority that is vital in electing the President (and of course, legitimizing the government).