In Lebanon, New Government Unlikely to Herald New Political Era

In Lebanon, New Government Unlikely to Herald New Political Era
Photo: Lebanese Parliament, Beruit, Lebanon, Feb. 8, 2006 (photo by Wikimedia user Heretiq, licensed under the Creative Commons Attirbution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license).
On Feb. 15, Lebanon formed a new government after 11 months of political deadlock. Yet the real significance and impact this will have on Lebanon’s political stability is very much unclear. The new Cabinet allows Lebanon’s main parties—the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and the Sunni Future Movement—to resume their political fight inside the government rather than on the street, although one does not preclude the other. However, several points of contention remain between the two sides that could obstruct further progress. For the new Cabinet to start addressing a host of pressing challenges, including the election of a new president before the summer, the Syrian refugee crisis, the deteriorating security situation and the collapsing economy, it must first come up with a set of political principles in the form of a policy statement. But Hezbollah and the Future Movement, and their respective allies, disagree on what the policy statement should say. Hezbollah wants the document to refer to its right to resist Israel, so that the Lebanese state continues to legitimize and legalize the group’s weapons. The Future Movement insists that such a role of national defense be strictly assumed by the Lebanese army. The Future Movement, along with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, also wants the policy statement to include a clause stating that Lebanon will maintain “neutrality” in regional conflicts, specifically the war in Syria, to apply pressure on Hezbollah to end its military involvement there. Such a clause would be consistent with the “Baabda declaration” emphasizing Lebanese neutrality, which the two sides agreed upon in 2012. Regardless what compromises Hezbollah and the Future Movement might end up agreeing on, no Lebanese or international document will force Hezbollah to withdraw its troops from Syria. Hezbollah sees the war in Syria as existential, as does Hezbollah’s primary patron, Iran. But if the relevance of the new Cabinet’s policy statement is questionable at best, the Future Movement still believes that it is important, in particular with regard to Lebanon’s obligations toward donor countries. Donors are expected to meet in Paris on March 5-6, where they will make crucial decisions to extend their funding to Lebanon to help it manage the Syrian spillover. If the new Cabinet grants all of Hezbollah’s wishes, there is a small chance donor countries might renege on their funding promises even though Lebanon’s stability is in their interest. The emergence of Lebanon’s new Cabinet suggests a moment of local detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the primary sponsors of the Future Movement and Hezbollah, respectively. Despite their fierce regional power struggle and proxy warfare in Syria and elsewhere, Saudi Arabia and Iran have realized that the growth of al-Qaida in the region threatens both of their interests. Preventing Lebanon’s descent into complete chaos is a mutual priority, hence the formation of the new government. But it is premature to say that this new Cabinet heralds a new political era in Lebanon, because relations between the Saudis and the Iranians are still very much uncertain. Like their regional backers, Hezbollah and the Future Movement will use the reactivated political process in Beirut to test each other’s intentions and adjust their plans and tactics accordingly. Peaceful coexistence and management of differences will be the name of the game. What might induce cooperation between the two sides is their mutual fear of Sunni radicalization and the expansion of al-Qaida-affiliated entities such as the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, who are responsible for several bombings in Hezbollah strongholds. Future Movement leader and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri has every interest in disavowing such groups—and he has—because they threaten his influence within Lebanon’s Sunni community. Furthermore, Hariri’s liberal political vision is radically opposed to al-Qaida’s jihadist tactics and “takfiri” culture, which authorizes the killing of those considered infidels. Now that the Future Movement is back in government, with Hariri ally Nohad Mashnouk serving as the new interior minister, it is unclear whether the Lebanese Internal Security Forces and their powerful intelligence branch—which are under Hariri’s influence and work closely with Riyadh’s spy agencies—will cooperate with the Hezbollah-dominated military intelligence directorate and state security on a joint counterterrorism strategy to combat al-Qaida. Lack of security cooperation will have implications for the process of electing a new president, as it would signal that both sides are still far from making real compromises and each is looking to gain the upper hand in the political system, depending on what happens on the Syrian battlefield. In the event that effective security cooperation does take place, a “mutually acceptable” presidential candidate becomes more likely. Despite the recent rapprochement between Hariri and Michel Aoun, the leader of the Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), it is hard to see Hariri endorsing Aoun for president; such a decision would torpedo Hariri’s alliance with Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces, who are firmly opposed to Aoun’s FPM, and upset former President Amin Gemayel’s Kataeb party, who also would like to see their leader return to the presidency. To avoid a presidential vacancy or the renewal of Suleiman’s term, the two sides’ broader coalitions—the Hezbollah-allied March 8 Alliance and the Hariri-allied March 14 alliance—might end up picking a nonpolitical figure, such as army commander Jean Kahwaji. This is not ideal; it would be the second consecutive time the country elected a military figure to the presidency. But it might offer some benefits. Security is the most urgent priority in today’s Lebanon, and Kahwaji might be able to deliver by working with all the state’s security institutions. Equally important, he can manage the process of arming the Lebanese army, which has recently received a $3 billion grant from Saudi Arabia, with weapons to be supplied by France. The longer Hezbollah and the Future Movement feud over the policy statement, the faster the mood of relative compromise will dissipate. The two sides have less than a month to come up with a formula that leaves “no victor and no vanquished.” After that the Cabinet loses its executive powers and constitutional legitimacy, and it is back to the drawing board. Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow for Middle East security at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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