Lebanon: The Vitality and Poverty of Arab Politics

Six Arab countries today -- Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Palestine and Somalia -- are engaged in intense domestic negotiations or confrontational dynamics that may determine, in some cases, whether these countries remain intact or devolve into new forms of decentralized sovereignty or even division into new states in the most extreme cases. A seventh -- Tunisia -- is in the midst of an exciting national rebirth whose outcome may well influence other Arab societies to democratize. The outcomes of these situations all remain unclear, and their distinct transformational mechanisms are very different. Sudan and Tunisia are the most heartening, reflecting refreshing different means of Arab nationals determining their own future. The situation in Lebanon strikes me as the most fascinating and regionally relevant, however, because it captures the best and worst of contemporary Arab politics and governance.

The government-formation crisis in Lebanon is dangerous and complex because it is in reality six separate issues that converge rather brutally: domestic power-sharing among the 18 Lebanese political, sectarian and ethnic communities; a stand-off between Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s “March 14” camp and the Hizbullah-Michele Aoun-led “March 8” opposition; the incompatibility of a powerful, armed Hizbullah within and alongside a less robust Lebanese state; inter-Arab tensions pitting Saudi-led Arabs vs. Syrian-allied Arabs; the Syrian-Lebanese and Hizbullah-Hariri disagreements about the indictments and work of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) that will try those accused of killing the late Rafik Hariri and 22 others; and, the wider confrontation between Iran and its many Middle Eastern supporters and the U.S.-Israeli-led foes of Iran in the region and globally.

Reaching minimum agreement on all six issues is difficult, but necessary, for any progress to happen. The amazing thing about the current situation of simultaneous negotiations, probes, threats, ultimatums, offers, enticements, concession and delaying tactics is precisely how the many different players and factors converge in this lively political dynamic that shows intermittent signs of success without actually consummating the deal. Three important speeches in recent days by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun clearly drew the battle lines over three of the six contentious issues: the STL, the new prime minister and cabinet, and government-opposition coexistence. In recent months, there have been intense discussions to seek common ground for agreement between the Lebanese parties, above all Hariri and Hizbullah, over the Special Tribunal, including discussing moves such as dissociating the Lebanese government’s partnership, judges and funding from the STL. This ultimately failed, leading to ongoing disagreement over the formation of a new government. The current dynamic in Lebanon will persist for some time, and will include direct talks among various Lebanese parties, direct and indirect involvement by foreign governments in the region and beyond, and mediation by Arabs, Turks and others who will surely try their hand.

At the same time, we have already witnessed unilateral withdrawals from the cabinet that collapsed it, and masked men marching through Beirut’s streets, in both cases reflecting the determination of the Hizbullah-Aoun camp in particular to take unilateral steps -- in the street or in political corridors -- to get their way in the face of what they see as threatening acts against them. Such behavior has triggered a strong reaction by the Hariri-led, Saudi-supported, American-prodded Hariri camp to accuse the opposition of thug-like behavior. The overwhelming military and organizational power of the Hizbullah-led opposition means there is no longer any chance of street fighting such as Lebanon and other Arab countries have witnessed many times before. The fear in Lebanon today is that political stalemate will rekindle assassinations and targeted bombings whose main aim would be to push the country to the edge of exasperation, despondency, fear and desperation for normalcy, to the point where external mediation then steps in again and brokers an agreement that maintains calm but does not address any of the underlying issues that created the crisis in the first place.

The simultaneous use of negotiations, foreign mediation, boots on the street, media attacks, constitutional consultations with the president, and near-hysterical fears among much of the population about safety in the streets captures both the vitality and poverty of contemporary Arab political culture. This is the hard reality of the modern Arab world at its most extreme limit where every single local, regional and foreign factor is in play simultaneously. Sudan and Tunisia, in contrast, offer two sharp alternatives to how political tensions can be resolved only by coming to grips with the underlying causes of the tensions, which seems impossible in Lebanon today because of the six different fault lines that are operative simultaneously.

Political compromise agreements to keep the country calm are probably the most realistic option for now, which probably means dissociating the Lebanese government from the STL. This merely kicks the can down the road to resurface another day: The core underlying problem of how Hizbullah and the sovereign Lebanese state reconcile their power and responsibilities remains unresolved, as do the issues of Iranian-Arab and inter-Arab ideological rivalries.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Rami G. Khouri

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