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Lebanon's political mess

It seems as of lately the Middle East is all about resignations. Resignations that could turn into game-changers. The head of the Syrian National Coalition announced his resignation on his Facebook page, although he later represented the Syrian opposition in an Arab League Summit that, according to some, inaugurated an era, as the Syrian opposition occupied the chair of the legitimate representatives of Syria before the international organization.

Lebanon having always, specially nowadays, been a country intimately linked to Syria's future, his Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced his resignation on 22 March. The decision apparently had to do with differences within his Cabinet over the regulations that will rule over the legislative elections that are due before Summer. June 20 is the date when the current Parliament’s mandate ends. Mikati added differences within the Government also hinged on extending the mandate of the police chief, General Ashraf Rifi, rejected by both most Ministers and Hezbollah. In principle, the president should call for parliamentary consultations to appoint a new Prime Minister who will then be asked to form a new government. But it seems that such a process would be very difficult, as the March 8 and March 14 block are the two main ones in Parliament but lack the majority, and a national unity Government might have to be formed, again. Many consider this event as one amongst many examples of how the Syrian conflict is spilling over Lebanon. In this sense, at least five people died in the northern city of Tripoli (where Mikati himself was born), as the result of the resumption of sectarian infighting nearby the border. But the announcement also reminds us of the bad shape Lebanese politics have been in for years, notably since the assassination of Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005, and might lead the Cedar country towards a dangerous political vacuum.

It was not the first time Mikati, a prominent Sunni politician and millionaire businessman with international contacts, threatened with his resignation. He first announced this intention when Hezbollah’s leaders rejected calls for Lebanon to fund the UN special tribunal on the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Hezbollah ultimately decided to cooperate, despite the fact that everybody knew they were going to be implicated in the murder sooner or later. He also pondered about resigning after the assassination in October 2012 of Wissam Al-Hassan that put the country on the verge of dire instability. But key regional and international players alike convinced Mikati to stay for the sake of Lebanon’s stability. Moreover, Mikati had also clashed with Hezbollah’s over various issues, notably over the need to strengthen the country’s security apparatus, as well as over the Syrian government violations inside Lebanon.

Mikati was appointed Prime Minister in January 2011, after the fall of the unity cabinet led by Saad Hariri, Rafiq's son. Mikati was raised to power thanks to the support of a coalition led by Hezbollah, which then favored the creation of a technocratic although deeply divided government. In principle, Mikati's plan was to create a moderate center in Lebanese politics and thus to set himself as the moderate force between the March 8 alliance led by Hezbollah and the March 14 block spearheaded by Saad Hariri. With this purpose in mind, he lured the President Michel Suleiman and an influential Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, into his coalition. Hezbollah,for its part, considered that having Mikati as leader of the Government was the lesser of two evils, that is, as long as he did not cross any red lines that could put Hezbollah’s power in jeopardy. Which it seems he has done.

The extension of General Rifi's (who's coincidentally also a Sunni from Tripoli) mandate as head of the Lebanese Police was also a controversial move, as it would have meant the violation of the National Defense Law. The Shia cum-militia Hezbollah deeply opposes the extension as well, as they consider he has been too "loyal" to Hariri and consequently blatantly favoring an anti-Syrian stance. As a matter of fact, Rifi's officers were involved in the investigation that led to the indictment of four Hezbollah members for their alleged role in Rafiq Hariri's murder. In reality, though, this has less to do with Rifi's figure than with the deeply ingrained feud between Hariri himself and Hezbollah, symbol of a decades-long arm-wrestle between their regional patrons over the control of Lebanon in the case of the former, over the regaining or maintaining of power in the region in the case of the latter, notably Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and even Israel. In what concerns  the country's security services, while Hariri can still count with the loyalty of the internal security services, especially its intelligence branch, Hezbollah allegedly controls state security and has influence over the military intelligence services. If Hezbollah succeeds in replacing Rifi with an ally (the highest ranked and most senior officer Major General Ali al-Hajj is said to be close to them), or at least with someone more neutral, they will be able to leverage their strategic advantage in the event of any key negotiation, moreso in such an unstable country as Lebanon. A parallel theory has been proposed by many media outlets, whereby, as both Mikati and Rafi hail from Tripoli (Mikati has been an MP from Tripoli since the Syrians chose him in 1996), in the event of an election, Mikati would have to run against a serious opponent, for Rifi is also very popular in the city.

The other reason Mikati referred to as a cause of his resignation was that the Lebanese Executive had been unable to reach consensus over the formation of an electoral commission charged with overseeing next June's elections. Hezbollah has been maneuvering for months, so as to lengthen the term of the current Parliament, in which the group has a majority of seats. The independent body's main responsibility will be ensuring the vote would proceed according to what has become known as “the 1960 Law”, a text that allegedly gives March 14 an artificial majority. Indeed, the Cabinet's debate followed a move by Christian parties to change an electoral law they feel is detrimental to their community. Mikati, along with Jumblatt "the kingmaker", is said to favor the existing law. This Law, under which the 2009 elections were conducted, follows the principles of the internationally brokered 2008 Doha agreement, a text that included the election of Michel Suleiman as president after the six-month presidential vacuum that followed the end of President Emile Lahoud’s term and after the Lebanese political forces failed to agree on a replacement. In the event the Electoral Law is overhauled, Hezbollah would in principle favour a dual electoral system that combines proportional and majoritarian elements. There is also an Orthodox gathering proposal whereby each community would choose its own representatives. Nevertheless, at the end of the day elections will not change the course of events, as those are highly influenced by inside and outside sectarian tensions. Sectarianism paralyses Lebanon's institutions, social dynamics and economic development. All in all, the worst element of Lebanese politics is the role religion plays. Religion, combined with outdated politicians (the average age of the main political figures is around 70 years of age and almost all of those leaders participated in different ways in the 15 years Civil war that ravaged the country) has been the biggest hinder to progress in Lebanese politics.

Hezbollah has been trying to derail Lebanon´s political landscape for years now. They have been specially active in this sense throughout the last months, aware of the delicate situation they will find themselves in once Assad is finally overthrown. Their only regional ally left would be then Iran, and that doesn't bode well if we take into account both the internal situation of the Persian country, badly damaged by international sanctions and in the midst of an uncertain presidential election, and its international stance, sidelined by most of the international community and constantly threatened by a US-backed Israel ready (and sometimes apparently eager to) launch a preemptive attack over the nuclear issue. Hezbollah will then need to have all the possible means at their disposal in order to cling on to power in Lebanon, and then maybe figure out how to face the rest of the region. They face an incredibly hard task, for Lebanon was built to preserve its multisectarian base, thanks to a (however moot) political system that grants a proportional amount of power to the main components of the population, via enduring checks and balances. Hezbollah trying to resort to an iron-fist rule would surely lead the country to descend into violence and to renewed bloodshed, as the Maronite Christian Government of Suleiman Frangieh did almost 40 years ago. The 1989 Taif Accord that put an end to the state's civil war actually came as a result of a Cabinet, parliamentary and presidential vacuum that lasted about 25 months. Presidential Elections are due next year. Let's only hope the Lebanese are not ready to wait that long this time. Wouldn't it be ironic if the "Arab Spring" had ultimately the unintended effect of undermining the one established Arab democracy?


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