Across the Bay

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Hariri vs. Hizbullah

There have been some interesting developments in Lebanon the last few weeks. Readers are probably aware of the first Hariri vs. Hizbullah verbal clash during Seniora's trip to the UN over the international aid packages to Lebanon, and whether they would have political strings attached to them. At the time, HA, Berri and their current cheerleader, the ever-destructive Walid Jumblat, lashed out at Seniora, accusing him essentially of potential treason, and of selling out the "constants" and all that garbage rhetoric that was commonplace under the Syrians. I was very pleased to hear both Seniora and Hariri lashing back at their critics, especially Jumblat, who is supposedly an "ally" of Hariri's.

The tension only escalated after Seniora requested American help in investigating the attempt on journalist May Chidiac's life, and even went a step further (also rhetorically), when Seniora declared a "war on terror" of sorts: "Lebanon like many other countries is at war with terrorism and we shall win the war irrespective of the costs and risks."

Needless to say, this has made HA quite nervous, and they plan to launch an attack on Seniora in the cabinet session scheduled for tonight through Energy Minister Fneish. Hizbullah's people have already made their position clear: they reject the help of the Americans, and view it not just as an intervention of a hostile party, but as a pretext for Israeli infiltration. In other words, the usual crap. Seniora was not pleased, and defended his decision, rejecting any implication that he is substituting Syrian tutelage with an American one, a charge that HA has been intensely diffusing through its propaganda outlet, Al-Manar TV.

HA is now trying to broaden its base of support by courting MP Michel Aoun. They even got Jumblat to issue, despite himself, a statement of quasi-rapprochement with Aoun. But it was so condescending that Aoun shot it down immediately. But Aoun did meet with a HA delegation, and there is talk of him meeting with Hasan Nasrallah.

Before meeting with the HA people however, Aoun's delegate met in Paris with Saad Hariri for 2 1/2 hours. This attention to Aoun must drive Jumblat crazy, and that's always a good thing. But that's a side note.

Sunnis vs. Shiites

Michael Young wrote an op-ed a while ago (with which I don't fully agree, I should add) noting that "broadly speaking, there are two forces at the national level today competing with one another, albeit peacefully, to fill the vacuum left behind by the Syrians: the Sunni community around Saad Hariri, and the Shiite community around Hizbullah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah." The Christians of Lebanon are therefore secondary, if important, actors. He added this important point: "There is also the fact that, while Christians may play less of a pivotal function than they used to, the other communities, particularly Sunnis and Shiites, have yet to truly negotiate power relationships with each other - something the Maronites and the Sunnis spent many decades doing. That past experience is why it's necessary to engage the Christians, but also why their balancing role can be advantageous to all."

Indeed, we are seeing this Sunni-Shiite power-struggle unfold. It's not without a sense of irony too. Note for instance, how in his statement to the press today, Berri stopped and thanked the Iranians and their role several times. Similarly, an envoy from the Iranian Shura Council came to Lebanon -- don't laugh -- to stress the rejection of any foreign interference!

Aoun's Role

Aoun's importance becomes clearer, as he commands a significant bloc in Parliament. He must be very careful in how he approaches Hizbullah, and he should fight his "temptation," as William Harris called it, of a FPM-Hizbullah connection at the expense of the center. I still maintain that with the current Shi'a leadership, the moderate center in Lebanon lies in a Christian-Sunni alliance, awaiting change on the Shiite scene. Aoun should not undercut that, neither should Hariri. I'll come back to this further below.

Aoun still disagrees with HA over their weapons, and has not backed down on the issue (be it via 1559 or Taef). His proposal is to integrate them into the armed forces. I think it's a horrible idea. Besides, we've seen the fight between Hariri and HA over the position of director of the General Security office, which HA wants. Their people still pack the military intelligence apparatus as well. I don't think anyone would be pleased with them having their own special brigade in the Army, act as a "consultant" to the army command! Besides, HA still refuses to disarm,a nd their notion of "dialogue" has not changed: we will dialogue about the possibility of dialogue, not about actual sensitive issues, such as disarmament.

France and the US

A report (PDF) in As-Siyassah the other day echoed these sentiments. Quoting an unnamed US Congressman (Engel?), it claimed that the French and the Americans have relayed their views to Seniora and Hariri about how to deal with HA, and the mechanisms that the Seniora cabinet has in mind. According to the report, the US and France put forth the following positions: 1- the dialogue should be between the government and HA, not between HA and the various Lebanese parties (which is what HA has been doing, in order to undermine any consensus on its weapons). 2- The US and France, according to the report, consider the integration of HA into the Army or any security agency as a Red Line that should not be crossed, and that these institutions should adopt a "Lebanese doctrine" as the basis of its direction, and not an "Iranian doctrine" or an "Arab" (read Syrian) one, such as the one being trumpeted by Walid Jumblat and his cronies in recent weeks. The latter was the one that dominated the security and military apparatuses under the Syrians and led to the present disasters. This Syrian doctrine must cease with the end of the Syrian occupation.

Given the fight over the remnants of the Syrian-Lebanese order, especially over the office of director of General Security as noted above, I don't think the Hariris have a problem with that. But you can bet HA does, for, as I noted earlier, their people were part and parcel of that Syrian-imposed order, especially in the military intelligence, and were especially close to Lahoud and the notorious Jamil es-Sayyed, currently in custody for his hand in the Hariri assassination.

Jumblat's Role

One of the questions reportedly asked to Seniora according to that As-Siyassah report was "what will your position be in response to your allies who oppose the disarmament of HA, like Walid Jumblat and Nabih Berri"? Well, perhaps the united unapologetic stance of Hariri and Seniora is the answer.

But whereas HA and Berri's reaction was understandble, as they were never really allies of Hariri, Jumblat's role proved most damaging, as it came from within Hariri's alliance.

Jumblat has tried to architect a return to the Syrian order (without the Syrians) since March. He torpedoed the Christian-Sunni alliance, and tried to lure the Sunnis into an alliance with HA and Berri. That has not proved quite successful. The only thing Jumblat managed to do was attack and alienate the Christians. Jumblat's main complex in all of this was the potential strength of Aoun in a post-Syrian Lebanon. A Hariri-Aoun alliance would marginalize him, and if both agree on an agenda of reforms, Jumblat stands to lose much.

Therefore, it is sweet irony that he simply cannot get rid or get around Aoun, no matter which camp he chooses! Of course not! That's how Lebanon works, which explains Jumblat's recent remarks attacking the notion of consensus as the rule in Lebanon.

An internationally-sponsored order (pushing for reforms) is anathema for Jumblat, so he has started singing the tune of Arabism once again. "Lebanon's Arabism is exposed," he said. In a sense, he's right. There is no credible regional Arabist force anymore. Nasser is dead, the PLO is localized, and Syria has managed to alienate Lebanon's Sunnis, the traditional bearers of the Arabist identity. Who does Jumblat have left? Hizbullah.

I've mentioned before how Jumblat is following in the destructive footsteps of his father, Kamal. Back in the late 60s-early 70s, Kamal Jumblat decided to use the Palestinians as his muscle in his effort to overthrow the Lebanese system. At the time, the revolutionary rhetoric had a good receptive audience among the strongly Nasserist (and mobilized) Sunni street. But the message of revolution was not one the Sunni notables wanted anything to do with. That has never changed (which is why, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb -- another self-styled HA expert -- in her incredibly bad piece in the DS, is way off the mark to insinuate that the Christians are the only ones to protest the abolition of the current system). What has changed are the dynamics between the current Sunni leadership and its constituents. While the Sunnis have not abandoned their Arabist sympathies, they are not the ones singing to the broken tune of Arab nationalist revolution. That has been taken over by the Shiite leadership.

This changes a lot of things for Jumblat. The sectarian dynamics have been drastically altered from the time of his father. Back then, the Sunni notables could not be "out-Arabized" by a Druze chieftain, whose discourse was widely accepted among their constituents. The current Sunni-Shia dynamics have messed that up, and this was clear on March 14th, when the Sunnis took to the streets after the pro-Syrian Hizbullah rally on March 8th.

For that reason, Saad and Seniora had no problem telling Jumblat to shut up, without any fear of looking weak on Arabism in the eyes of their community. In fact, they would've looked weak had they not asserted themselves. They also got the support of the Christians, who have had it with Jumblat.

Moreover, Walid, unlike his father, has no interest whatsoever in overthrowing the system. On the contrary, he wants to reestablish the Syrian order, without the Syrians. An internationally backed Hariri is a threat. Adding Aoun to that is way too much.

Courting Aoun

But, despite his hatred of Aoun, Jumblat is now forced to go along with HA in trying to court him to join an alliance against the Seniora government. Although maintaining an open line with everyone is a good thing, ganging up against Seniora a dangerous trap that Aoun should avoid, regardless of his criticisms of the failures of the cabinet.

Aoun's role as the critical opposition can be quite useful, but it has to be managed carefully. Aoun also has aspirations for the presidency, and is now in a good position to negotiate, to the certain ire of Jumblat. That's a very good place to be for Aoun, who has wisely refused to be the one facing the barrel of the gun. But Aoun should not abandon the center just to reach the presidency. If he plays along with HA, he would be playing with fire, especially when it comes to Intl' aid. In a sense, he would put himself in the hot seat for no good reason.

Upcoming Challenges

The immediate future still holds a lot of dangerous pitfalls for Lebanon. The Mehlis report and its effects is one. What will happen in Syria? Will Bashar stay in power? If so, how will that reflect on the Lebanese scene and Syro-Lebanese relations? Furthermore, how will it reflect internally, in the cabinet and in Parliament, where HA and Berri have not backed away from supporting Syria?

Another challenge is the remainder of the UNR 1559, and Lebanon's overall relationship with the Intl' Com. Again, HA is trying to sabotage and dictate Foreign Policy.

Related to this is the issue of the Palestinian weapons. In the last couple of days, this matter took front stage as Syrian-backed Palestinian elements (Ahmad Jibril's PFLP-GC) were smuggling weapons to the Palestinian camps, and have placed them on alert. The Army then surrounded main camps, especially in the Bekaa, and tried to cut off the smuggling routes.

I've said before that the Palestinian issue will be another Sunni-Shiite hot topic of contention.

All these challenges require a strong moderate center, away from the hollow but incendiary ideological rhetoric, of the kind propagated by Jumblat and HA. That center needs to be strongly supported by the Intl' Com.

HA will certainly use this to up the rhetoric and mobilize the Shi'a around them, under the pretext of the Shi'a being left out and isolated. It's the same old trick.

The Christians need to walk a very fine line in such a situation. On the one hand, it's clear that only the Sunni Hariri and Seniora could've said what they said to HA and Berri. Had it been a Christian getting American and French support, you could forget it. But like I said, the dynamics have changed, and it's not a Christian who's taking the lead in this, and I'd add thankfully so! In that sense, Michael was right. Michael's other proposal on the Christians as middle-men may be also true, but it's a tricky one. That's why Aoun's and the Christians' current situation is so delicate. And it's especially crucial for Aoun to navigate with extreme caution. It will be something new.

Like I said earlier, Aoun needs to back the moderate center (along with Hariri), not undermine it. It's unfortunate that HA can and will manipulate that in a sectarian way. But it's simply unacceptable to keep playing HA's game. For the millionth time, as Hazem Saghieh recently put it, Lebanon does not work that way, and is inherently not compatible with radical trans-national ideologies. If Hizbullah is serious about dialogue, and nothing has shown that to be the case, it should put its money (and its weapons) where its mouth is, and not simply maneuvre to undermine consensus, hamstring the cabinet, and (with the help of its cheerleaders) sabotage international aid and economic reforms, as if the Syrians never left.