Foreign Policy Blogs

Lebanon: The Year in Review (So Far…)

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati

2011 began with yet another governmental crisis for Lebanon, as the ministers affiliated to the March 8 coalition walked out of Premier Saad Hariri’s cabinet, forcing its collapse. With impeccable (and, no doubt, carefully calculated) timing, the representatives of Hizballah, its Shiite frenemy AMAL, and the Free Patriotic Movement, led by the revenchard General Michel Aoun, announced their withdrawal from the “government of national unity” just as Hariri was posing for pictures with Barack Obama at the White House.

This decision, they announced, had been taken because of the cabinet’s refusal to cease cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), established by UN Security Council Resolution 1757 to investigate of the assassination of Saad’s father, Rafiq, on Valentine’s Day 2005.

Only in June, after six months of governmental hiatus, was the Sunni billionaire Najib Mikati, nominated by March 8 as a consensus candidate for the premiership, finally confirmed in his position.

The months since, meanwhile, have been marked by the partisan sniping and compromises typical of Lebanese politics. Three issues, in particular, have dominated political discussion.

The first of these was the electricity plan put forward by the FPM, and its energy minister Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law and heir-apparent. First suggested in 2009, but put on the back-burner until Aoun’s camp was better able to impose its demands in Mikati’s cabinet, this promised to end both Lebanon’s sempiternal power shortages, and the immense losses provoked by an inefficient energy sector. On the one hand, Bassil insisted, his plan would raise production to 4000MW by 2014, insuring round-the-clock electricity for all Lebanese – a vast improvement on the current situation, where most outside the capital, provided only with a few hours of power by the state, are forced to fall back on thriving private generator suppliers. On the other, a restructuring of Electricité du Liban, the state-owned energy supplier, would cut losses from $4.4b in 2010 to zero in three years.

These are, to say the least, ambitious – if not overweening – claims, and many have expressed doubts that they can be put into effect. But more contentious for the March 14 opposition were the financial details of Bassil’s plan. While his demand that $1.2b be handed over to the Ministry of Energy and Water to finance the first phase of this overhaul, and his initial refusal to countenance the creation of a regulatory body to supervise the energy sector (a point he eventually conceded to PM Mikati), were perceived by his opponents as political malfeasance of the most blatant kind, his apparent preference for turning to Iran, rather than Arab countries, to secure the $1b of foreign aid included in the funding package was seen as a further sign of March 8′s love affair with the Islamic Republic.

After a long summer of claims and counter-claims, deadlocks and breakdowns, during which Aoun, in one of his cantankerous weekly press conferences, called on the Lebanese people to invest the chamber of deputies to make good their demands for functioning services, the cabinet finally reached agreement on a draft law in early September. This, though, has not put an end to the enduring debate over electricity and its uses. One of the most enduring complaints of ordinary citizens, the lack of regular power seems an apt symbol for the state’s failure to provide even the most basic amenities to its charges, and for the parasitic forms of capitalism which thrive upon this absence.

The second of these issues is, as has become customary, the STL, and its ongoing tribulations. In June, after many announcements, delays, and rumors, the office of the Prosecutor, Canadian judge Daniel Bellemare, issued its indictment against Mustafa Amin Badreddin, Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, and Assad Hassan Habra, for charges relating to the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri. Perhaps unavoidably, this announcement – expected, discussed, dismissed, and feared by the Lebanese for so long – proved somewhat of an anticlimax. As many had expected since the controversial claim by Germany’s Der Spiegel that Hizballah, and not the Syrian regime, had engineered and executed Hariri’s killing, this document implicated individuals associated with the Party of God.

But it did not, as many had feared, prompt violent reprisals. On the contrary, the party’s MPs and cadres have continued to deride the tribunal as a “politicized and unconstitutional” instrument of “American-Israeli” influence, as Nasrallah reiterated on 1 December, whose claims are based largely on unfounded speculation, distortion, and sheer untruths. The Prosecution’s case, in this respect, has hardly been bolstered by its professed reliance on circumstantial evidence – and in particular, extensive use of records of cell phone usage. This may, or may not, prove sufficient in a court of law – but in the arena of Lebanese political debate, a world little concerned with the niceties of legal procedure at the best of times, such evidence can all too easily seem a flimsy sign of the STL’s continued failings.

What is more, the tribunal continues to await the delivery of the four accused, which the Lebanese state has so far proved unable, or unwilling, to apprehend. This failure was briefly brought into sharp relief by the publication in Time Magazine of what appeared to be an interview with one of the four accused, who allegedly claimed that “the Lebanese authorities know where I live, and if they wanted to arrest me they would have done it a long time ago. Simply, they cannot”. Though doubts were later cast on the veracity of these words when the author of the piece, Nicholas Blanford, was forced to admit that he had not conducted the interview himself, they certainly hit a raw nerve with the Lebanese government. In particular, they irked PM Mikati, keen to stress his own commitment to the STL in the face of accusations by the Future Movement that his decision to present himself as a candidate for the premiership made of him a “two-faced and two-tongued” traitor to the cause of the international tribunal, the Hariri hegemon, and by extension the entire Sunni community.

Mikati had a further opportunity to demonstrate this commitment in November, when the issue of Lebanon’s $32.6m contribution to the budget of the STL again raised its head. Declaring on Twitter that “STL financing is a means to a bigger end: justice, stability and Lebanon’s continuous respect of its international commitments”, Mikati threatened to resign if the cabinet did not agree to this payment by the end of the month, before dramatically announcing on 30 November that he had used the Prime Minister’s budget to pay the required sum.

Seemingly the most surprising event of the year, this decision was welcomed and criticized in equal measures by figures on both sides of the political divide. While many praised Mikati – the man of the year simply for his apparent ability to withstand the slings and arrows pelted at him from both sides of the political divide for so long – for his desire to preserve Lebanon’s stability at all costs, others took him to task for what they regarded as a dangerous precedent – a peremptory assumption by a single individual of the executive powers invested by the constitution in the cabinet as a corporate body, and one which, as blogger Elias Muhanna has pointed out, highlighted the extensive “discretionary spending powers” at the PM’s disposal.

However, Mikati’s urgency – and the willingness of Hizballah and its allies to acquiesce in this unorthodox arrangement, which spared them the need to vote on the funding of the STL in the cabinet or parliament – also highlight several other trends which have become apparent in recent months.

The first is the lack, besides Mikati himself, of credible alternatives to the Hariri family, and close associates like Fouad al-Siniora, as potential contenders for the premiership and the leadership of the Suni community. That both Hizballah and the Syrian regime are all too aware of the dearth of suitable candidates may explain their seemingly paradoxical eagerness for Mikati to honour Lebanon’s commitments to the STL, thereby keeping him safely in place.

Mikati, in turn, has been driven by a desire to present himself as a competent, efficient, calm alternative to the Hariri family – a man who might be perceived by both the Lebanese public, and more particularly the Sunni community, and the international community as a capable, safe pair of hands, committed to Lebanon’s relationship with the West, but unwilling to burn his bridges with Hizballah. Mikati certainly is thinking ahead to the 2013 parliamentary elections, and the possibility of building a power base outside his hometown of Tripoli. But he is also acting under the pressure of current events – and, in particular, his desire to alleviate the damage done to Lebanon’s standing on the international scene by its refusal to countenance sanctions against Syria at the UN and the Arab League.

Indeed, Mikati’s behaviour suggests that he is aware not just of the diminished dominance of the Future Movement, hobbled by Saad al-Hariri’s relative political inexperience and continuing absence from Lebanon, but also of the profoundly divisive effects of events in Syria on a fragmented Lebanese political scene.

This is the third issue to have dominated discussion in Lebanon over the last few months. March 8 has adopted a dual rhetorical stance on events in Syria, eerily reminiscent of the strategy adopted by the Syrian regime itself. On the one hand it has consistently sought to belittle the swelling opposition to the government of Bashar al-Assad, Aoun declaring in one press conference in August that “anyone who enters Syria will see that it is calm – where is Damascus? where is Aleppo?”. On the other, it has portrayed this opposition as a “terrorist” uprising against a legitimate state, driven by decisions taken “outside Syria” to pressure the country to “cut its ties to Iran, Hamas, and Hizballah, and to enter into negotiations with Israel” – just one more nefarious move in a vast scheme to decapitate all resistance to Israel. As Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah put it in a speech marking ‘Ashura on 6 December, “there are some who don’t want civil peace or stability and want to destroy Syria”, establishing an “Arab regime that is ready to rubber stamp anything for the US and Israel”.

March 14, meanwhile, has seen the Syrian uprising as a source of political capital – though one which has perhaps yielded fewer benefits than it might have hoped. While the Lebanese Forces and the Kata’ib have portrayed the rise of a concerted opposition to the Assad regime as another manifestation of the fervour for democracy sweeping the region – a fervour which began, in their eyes, in Beirut’s streets in March 2005 – the Future Movement has sought to stress its solidarity with “the Syrian revolution and the Syrian people”, as Saad al-Hariri put it on Twitter yesterday.

The clearest demonstration of this was at the rally the Future Movement held on 28 November in Tripoli – not coincidentally, not only Mikati’s hometown and political base, but also the Lebanese city with the closest connections to Syria. While this gathering’s ostensible purpose was the celebration of Lebanon’s Independence Day on 22 November, it was marked by orchestrated signs of support for the Syrian opposition, from the unfurling of a pre-Baath Syrian flag, recently adopted as the emblem of the revolution, to banners reading “Syria will be free from Bashar and his thugs”.

The Future Movement clearly hopes to galvanize the sympathy of Lebanese Sunnis for their coreligionists across the border in embattled Homs and Hama. But the party, and its partners in March 14, are also pinning their hopes for change in Lebanon on the fall of the Assad regime. As another of the banners in Tripoli read: “GAME OVER Bashar and Hassan Nasrallah”.

The logic underlying such proclamations is clear. Should the Assad regime collapse, a government rather less well-disposed to Iran and Hizballah will come into power, as the figurehead of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun recently made clear in an interview to the Wall Street Journal; this will starve Hizballah and AMAL of one of their key sources of regional support, and cut off their supply routes to Iran; and this will, in turn, change the balance of forces within Lebanon.

Whatever the strength of such reasoning, it is clear that the Future Movement and its allies are not so much seeking to free Lebanon entirely from foreign influence, as looking to external forces to influence the country’s domestic power relations. In doing so, they are not just following a time-honoured tradition of Lebanese politics, but also proving the political pragmatists they are. For it is certain that prospects for Lebanon in 2012 will continue to depend to a large extent on the situation of its neighbours – and, in particular, the fortunes of the Syrian regime.