Elements of Analysis of the Lebanese Political Crisis

By Camille Germanos

This Middle East Insight (no. 3) is also available for download: Insight 3

Lebanon is experiencing severe political upheaval fuelled by a changing geopolitical landscape. The latest tumult began when Hizballah, the armed but participatory opposition party led by Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, took preemptive action against forthcoming STL indictments (Special Tribunal for Lebanon), widely believed to place blame for the 2005 assassination of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on members of its own party. Hizballah’s cabinet coalition prompted the sudden collapse of Mr. Saad Hariri’s government. Days later, the now former opposition garnered a parliamentary majority with a sympathetic Lebanese tycoon, namely Mr. Najib Miqati, securing the post of Prime Minister.

The pace of events and the extent of the shift in Lebanon have alarmed the United States, Israel and the United Nations, all of whom favor Mr. Hariri and his Future Party who now constitute the opposition. This dramatic re-distribution along the political spectrum has strengthened the Syrian and Iranian axis in Beirut, while leaks in the press depicting Mr. Hariri calling Saudi Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef assafah, meaning “killer”  jeopardized Hariri’s relationship with his main backer, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Mr. Hariri has been weakened by the unprecedented mass protests in several parts of the Arab world shaking his traditional allies.

Despite the foregone nature of the parliamentary transition, this confluence of events puts forward several uncertainties. Perhaps most pressing, will PM Miqati rescind Lebanese backing for the STL as forcefully requested by Hizballah, and how will opposing forces react in the case that he does or does not?

What future can one foresee for the Lebanese Republic, microcosm of the region’s politics, with masses clamoring for regime changes in the Middle East? Already readying for international sanctions and looming hostilities with Israel, is Hizballah looking south to Egypt, preparing the ground for political entente with the Muslim Brotherhood?

Internally, Hizballah catalyzed the fall of PM Hariri, the leading political figure of Lebanon’s Sunnite community, by garnering enough support to concoct the resignation of ten cabinet ministers and thereby the collapse of the government on 12 January. Four days earlier, the General Secretary of Hizballah, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, anticipated the failure of the Saudi-Syrian initiative aiming to neutralize the STL within Lebanon. He presumed that it was obstructed by American pressure over the Saudis. Rejecting the STL as a political tool against his organization, Sayed Nasrallah asked the government to halt financial support and withdraw the Lebanese judges from the Tribunal. Further, he advocated revoking the act of agreement signed with the United Nations, delegitimized by a false witness file at the STL and the disappearance from the state’s coffers of $11 billion.

In the following week, Lebanon lived tensely under political uncertainty until MP Walid Junblat dissolved his “Democratic Gathering”, and backed the premiership of the Hizballah coalition through his new bloc renamed “National Struggle Front.” Such a dramatic political shift raised questions about the legitimacy of the new majority, as it suggested that Junblat made this decision under threat. But the Druze leader declared that his switch to the side of Syria and the Resistance served to preserve Lebanon’s stability. Further, he accused his old ally Mr. Hariri of misunderstanding the complex political landscape in Lebanon.

Binding consultations with neutral and mutually agreeable President Michel Suleiman on 25 January secured 68 votes for Hizballah-backed Najib Miqati against 60 votes for the outgoing caretaker PM Saad Hariri. Mr. Miqati’s nomination triggered spontaneous clashes in Sunnite regions, especially in Tripoli, where some of the secular and religious movements are closer to Hizballah. Meanwhile Mr. Hariri accused Hizballah of seizing power illegitimately and called for a ‘day of rage.’ The civil demonstrations of discontent that followed remained relatively contained and civil peace was preserved. In the meantime, both sides agreed to condemn the growing hatred expressed in some political speeches.

Having avoided the worst, namely total civil unrest, new challenges emerged and turned political again. Mr. Miqati, who presented himself as a candidate of unity and dialogue, has not yet managed to convince the Hariri coalition to join his government. It is obvious that he does not wish to claim full power and therefore is striving to reach consensus among all parties. His Christian interlocutors from the increasingly fragmented ‘March 14’ (anti-Syrian, pro-Hariri) coalition, however, seem more prepared to make concessions than the Hariri camp. If they can secure enough cabinet seats to veto major government decisions and if the STL is maintained, then they may abdicate from two hotly contested but lately dormant files: the disarmament of Hizballah and its merger with the army, and the possession of weapons inside Palestinian refugee camps.

No matter how the political balance might bend, political customs remain unchanged in Lebanon and internal deadlines tend to correspond with international timelines. As such, Mr. Miqati will wait for two lingering questions to be answered before composing his cabinet: the destiny of President Mubarak in Egypt, and the long-awaited public hearing of the indictments on 7 February. Also, he will not want to reveal his strategy yet to avoid clashes on 14 February, the sensitive anniversary of the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and, for many, the commemoration of his martyrdom. But Miqati’s cabinet composition will reflect his overall political agenda. Can his ministerial composition strike a balance between adherence to international law and a revocation of the protocol of agreement with the UN? One option for Miqati is to compose a cabinet of technocrats and delineate a technical policy approach in which all points of contention can be handled at a negotiating table in the future.

Adding fuel to the Lebanese fire, authoritarian Western-backed regimes in the region are themselves feeling the heat. Last month, the flight of the Tunisian president in the face of a popular uprising triggered a series of demonstrations in Algeria, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere. The Egyptian people’s uprising has reached a standoff, as the people tenaciously demand President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation while he tries to hold his grip and loses allies and credibility in the international community. In Jordan, protesters gathered across the country until Parliament was dissolved and the Prime Minister Samir Rifaii stepped down. Syria has shut down the Facebook website and reversed some recent austerity measures. Even in Saudi Arabia, some bold demonstrators are demanding economic concessions from their government. As Lebanon’s usual Sunnite allies and peace-brokers (Syria and Saudi Arabia) face their own major political challenges, Mr. Hariri will only be isolated further.

Meanwhile, the weakening of Hariri’s regional support contrasts with a strengthened axis on Hizballah’s side that is benefiting from rising opposition in the Arab countries. For instance, Hizballah and Iran are readying for a strengthened Muslim Brotherhood; after a three-way meeting on 1 February with Jamaa Islamiya, they declared their unity in fighting the same Zionist enemy. This bond was corroborated by the expanded Iranian naval presence in the region.

On the international level, these dramatic developments have sent tremors through Israeli and American diplomatic circles. Earlier this week, Israel warned that a Lebanese government closer to the Hizballah might face international sanctions, while the Israeli press is clearly concerned about the political shifts in their neighborhood. Although PM Miqati hasn’t yet made any statements relating to the STL, Washington has emphasized the right of the Lebanese people to choose both justice and political stability.

From Davos, the General Secretary of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon emphasized the duty of the Lebanese Republic not to question the agreement with the UN. International restrictions or armed intervention are not impossible to envisage. As the STL is classified under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, the Security Council can make recommendations or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42 of the UN Charter to maintain or restore peace and security.

After the Appeals Chamber public hearing on 7 February, Judge Daniel Fransen is expected to study the file and issue extradition warrants in the following few weeks. While it is possible that the pre-trial judges will ask for an extension for further interpretation of the Lebanese penal code, an official accusation will soon be made. What happens if the Lebanese government refuses to comply with any request for assistance by the STL or to arrest and transfer the indicted to the Tribunal? Some sources believe that Washington intends to have the trial proceed in-absentia, thereby establishing a precedent for trying other fugitive leaders of Islamic organizations. In addition to this potentiality, Lebanon remains exposed to international isolation and potential UN sanctions.

As always, the Lebanese political scene is perhaps best compared with some of these trades that are best understood in hindsight. Yet everyone playing a role in this drama has taken a stance at this point, except one conspicuously absent player: President Obama. He is being described as the President who lost Egypt; will he also be the President who lost Lebanon?

Camille Germanos is a research associate at the Middle East Institute. The views expressed here are her own.



Arabs Look to Istanbul

For internal circulation

8 November 2010

 By Rainer Hermann


Turkey is not wavering in the slightest from its pro-European course. Nevertheless, as a trading nation with a dynamic economy that is the living proof of the fact that Islam, a secular political landscape and a parliamentary democracy are indeed compatible, it has in recent times rediscovered its Arab neighbours.
There was one good thing about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Lebanon: although it increased tension prior to the publication of the indictment by the special international tribunal into the murder of Rafiq Hariri, it also demonstrated that in the Arab world, Iran can now really only be sure of the support of Shiites. In Beirut and during his trip to South Lebanon, Ahmadinejad was almost exclusively cheered on by Shiites; Sunni Muslims in the Arab world, on the other hand, viewed his visit to Lebanon with considerable disquiet.

There are many reasons why Iran’s influence in the Arab world has passed its zenith. One of them is the circumstances that surrounded Ahmadinejad’s re-election in June 2009 and the bloody crackdown on protests. Another is the growing influence of Turkey.

Last July, Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research discovered that 43 percent of all Palestinians consider Turkey to be their most important foreign policy ally, ahead of Egypt at 13 percent and Iran at only 6 percent. Support for Turkey in the West Bank and in Gaza is virtually the same.

In Lebanon, Ahmadinejad did not succeed in reversing this trend. Shortly before his arrival in Beirut, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was back in Damascus for another meeting with President Bashar al-Assad. In the race for the post of prime minister in Iraq, both these men support the secular Shiite Iyad Allawi, while the powers that be in Iran prefer Nouri Maliki.

In addition to the matter of Iran, Erdogan and Assad spoke about opportunities for reviving the peace process. Assad made it clear that indirect talks with Israel could only be restarted if Turkey were to act as mediator.

Turkey is a “success story” in the Middle East

Up until ten years ago, Turkey was not a player in the Middle East, despite the fact that it shares borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. It was a quiet neighbour. Today, the state that succeeded the Ottoman Empire is a popular go-between and trading partner. For the states and societies of the Middle East, Turkey – with its dynamic economy and practical evidence that Islam, a secular political landscape and parliamentary democracy are indeed compatible – is a “success story”; it has become a “soft power”.

There are heated debates in the West as to whether Turkey is currently just rediscovering the Middle East or whether it is actually returning to it and – if this is indeed the case – whether it is abandoning its foreign policy orientation towards the West. These questions were recently addressed at a conference in Istanbul organised by the Sabanci University, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and the Robert Bosch Foundation.

One of the conclusions reached at the event was that although Turkey has adopted a new, active foreign policy, it has not abandoned its pro-European, pro-Western course. Nor has it shifted the main lines of its foreign policy. The policy of opening up towards its neighbours in the Middle East is much more a matter of diversifying its diplomacy and increasing prosperity in Turkey by tapping into new sales markets.

Foreign policy in the service of trading interests

Turkey’s former foreign policy was based on security considerations and the priority of territorial integrity. Its new foreign policy, on the other hand, is in the service of Turkey the trading nation and seeks to guarantee security and safeguard borders by increasing prosperity. Sükrü Elekdag, one of the best-known ambassadors in the country’s old diplomatic guard, often liked to say that Turkey always had to be ready for “two-and-a-half wars”, i.e. wars against Greece, Syria and the PKK.

In sharp contrast to this, Turkey’s current foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has formulated a “policy of no problems” towards all neighbours, the aim of which is to maximize cross-border trade. With the exception of Armenia, this policy has worked so far. Turkish foreign policy is more than just classic diplomacy, it is trade policy. It is above all Turkey’s new, up-and-coming middle class – the backbone of the ruling AKP – that is benefitting from the new, economy-based foreign policy of Turkey the trading nation.

The industrial cities of Anatolia, which have been dubbed the “Anatolian tigers”, are eyeing as yet unexploited market opportunities in neighbouring countries. While their entrepreneurs are also trading with Europe, they are increasingly focussing their efforts on the Middle East because of Europe’s restrictive Schengen visa policy, which also hits entrepreneurs and investors. This is why they support the visa-free zone which Turkey has established with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

One of the success stories of Turkey’s new foreign policy is Syria. In 1998, the two neighbours stood on the brink of war. Today, their economic and political ties are close. The Turkish-Syrian rapprochement went hand in hand with a cooling of relations with Israel. This process had already begun under Erdogan’s predecessor, the left-wing nationalist Bülent Ecevit, who accused Israel of “genocide” against the Palestinians. That being said, Erdogan visited Israel as recently as 2005; two years later, Israeli President Shimon Peres addressed the Turkish parliament.

Turkey’s policy towards Israel and the Palestinians is very different to that of the EU. While both advocate a peaceful resolution to the conflict and a two-state solution, they are talking to different players. Turkey accuses European diplomacy of ignoring reality because it is only talking to Fatah and boycotting Hamas. The Turkish reasoning is that there cannot be a peaceful solution without the involvement of Hamas. This is why Turkey is trying to pull Hamas into the political “mainstream”.

The differences of opinion between Turkey and the West are particularly blatant when it comes to Iran. While the West is toughening its sanctions against Iran, Turkey is developing its trade with the Islamic Republic.

Last June, Turkey voted against harsher sanctions in the UN Security Council. Unlike the West, Turkey believes that the only way to normalise Iran is to normalise relations, which involves trade and diplomacy. Turkey is familiar with the kind of bazaar mentality that is needed for negotiations with Iran. For fear of destabilizing the region, neither the Ottoman Empire nor the Turkish Republic has ever supported rebellions in Iran. For centuries, the safeguarding of a regional balance of power has been more important than the pursuance of a foreign policy based on ideology. This is why Turkey’s sympathy with the dissident “green” movement is only modest.

Just like the EU, Turkey only plays a secondary role in the Middle East behind the United States. At the end of the Cold War, however, it correctly identified the shifting of the tectonic plates in world politics and now, as a modern, self-confident, trading nation, wants to grasp the opportunities that are arising. Turkey still has its sights set on Europe. But the door to Europe remains locked and so this newly self-confident nation is pursuing its own interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Rainer Hermann


Qantara.de, Germany  Dialogue with the Islamic World    –  5 Nov 10



About Qantara.de


The Arabic word “qantara” means “bridge”. The Internet portal Qantara.de represents the concerted effort of the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Federal Center for Political Education), Deutsche Welle, the Goethe Institut and the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations) to promote dialogue with the Islamic world. The project is funded by the German Foreign Office.

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung/Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de


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Armageddon in Southern Beirut?

2 Nov 10

By Rami G. Khouri

BEIRUT — Who would have thought that a gynecologist’s office in the Hizbullah-dominated southern Beirut suburb of Dahieh would be the symbolic place where the colonial and anti-colonial struggles of the past century would reach their confrontational peak and bring to a head this long-simmering war? Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s call Thursday night for all Lebanese to stop cooperating with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is investigating and will soon indict those it believes killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others five years ago, followed an attempt by STL officers to examine patient files in the doctor’s office in Dahieh a few days ago, presumably because the STL has evidence it believes implicates some Hizbullah personnel in the assassinations. Hizbullah supporters, mostly women, beat back the STL party and quickly heightened the political confrontation that has been brewing in the country for months.

Nasrallah’s open call to boycott and actively oppose the STL marks an historical moment of reckoning that is as dangerous as it was inevitable. This is because Hizbullah and the STL represent perhaps the two most powerful symbols of the two most important forces that have defined the Middle East for the past century or more: On the one hand, Western (including Israeli) interests and interventions that seek to shape this region in a manner that suits Western aims more than it suits indigenous rights, and, on the other hand, native Arab-Islamic-nationalist resistance that seeks to shape our societies according to Arab-Islamic worldviews as defined by a consensus of local actors, identities and forces.

Stripped to its core, this tension between Hizbullah and the STL is a microcosm of the overarching fact of the modern era in which Western-manufactured Arab statehood has generally failed to gain either real traction or sustained credibility; thus it has fallen on groups like Hizbullah to play a leading role in confronting Israeli and Western power in a manner that most Arab governments have been unable or unwilling to do.

Therefore, we live through this historic but frightening moment when a century of confrontation reaches a pivotal juncture: The collective will of the Western-dominated world (the Security Council-created STL) confronts the strong rejection and public resistance of the only Arab group (Hizbullah) that has forced an Israeli military withdrawal and confounded the Israeli armed forces, while transcending Arabism and Islamism, religiosity and secularism, Arabs and Iranians, Shiites and Sunnis, and assorted Lebanese Christians and Muslims.

The confrontation now playing itself out in various public milieus between Hizbullah and the STL is made more complex and difficult to resolve because of deep links with other regional actors, especially Israel, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. The STL is unlike anything that the Arab world has witnessed or experienced in its entire modern history, because it represents something frightening to many Arabs: the unanimous decision of the Security Council of the UN to probe deep into the inner fibers of Arab societies — mostly Lebanon and Syria, in this case — in order to stop the political assassinations that shocked the world five years ago (but that have also plagued the modern Arab world for the past half a century or more, without anyone caring).

The majority of Lebanese want to know who killed Rafik Hariri and would like to see such assassinations cease once and for all, but they have proven unable to do this on their own. The Security Council stepped in forcefully in early 2005 to do the job, and it did so partly because some powers who dominate the council saw an opportunity to hit the Syrians and Hizbullah hard. At a moment when the neoconservative-controlled United States thought it could frighten any Arab party into compliance with its dictates simply by brandishing the threat of an Iraq-like assault, the move was made to push Syria out of Lebanon and to disarm Hizbullah. The scenes that followed did not conform to the script the Bush-Cheney White House and their pro-Israeli zealot friends had envisaged, because Syria, Hizbullah, Iran and others pushed back and resisted the moves against them. That dynamic has now reached its climax in events centered on Lebanon.

Two powerful forces confront each other now in public: American-dominated Western colonial intervention in the Arab region, and Islamist-dominated Arab-Islamic resistance from within that same Arab region. Three options present themselves: One of these two forces has to back down, both have to compromise and postpone the day of reckoning in their epic struggle, or they will soon settle this on the battlefields of Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Iran, American-dominated Iran and Afghanistan, and the oil and gas fields of the Gulf Arab states.

Armageddon will look like a kindergarten cookie dance if the third option materializes, which is now a bit more likely than it was a week ago — because of the past century, more than the past week.

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.

Copyright © 2010 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

(Released: 01 November 2010)


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