November 12, 2009
Deal or no deal?! Berri, Al-Hariri and Nasrallah.
After several months of stalled talks, Sa'd al-Hariri, the prime minister-designate of Lebanon, was finally able to form a unity government. Al-Hariri heads the "14 Azar Movement," a pro-Western parliamentary coalition that won the majority in this summer's elections. Although 14 Azar's victory exceeded most expectations, cracks did show within the coalition. First, Waleed Jumblat's Druze party defected to the Hizbullah-led opposition. Second, Amin Al-Jemail's "Lebanese Brigades" publicly denounced Hariri's decision to appoint only one minister from the Brigades in the ineffectual Social Affairs ministry. The Lebanese Brigades also called for a review of the structure of the coalition. These protests emanate from a growing sense of irrelevance among Maronite Christians and Muslim Druze, two minorities whose demographics and political clout have been diminishing vis-a-vis the Sunnis and the Shi'a.
The new government is more or less the fruit of a deal between Hizbullah and Hariri's Future party. The deal was arguably made on their behalf during King Abdullah's visit to Damascus in October. This episode reveals three things about Lebanon. First, external patrons still call the shots. Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia are all heavily invested in domestic Lebanese politics. Second, the power of arms (Hizbullah via Iran and Syria) and the power of money (14 Azar via Saudi Arabia and some Gulf countries) dictate the relative balance of power among the sectarian political actors. In the annual conference of the Middle East Institute in Washington, Sami Al-Faraj, the head of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies openly bragged about the financial influence of the Gulf Sheikhdoms in determining the outcome of the Lebanese elections. Finally, the Shi'a and Sunnis growing populations have indeed eclipsed those of other sectarian groups, most notably the Druze and the Maronites.
But there is hope yet for a stable Lebanon. The new government not only enjoys the support of Saudi Arabia and Syria, it also enjoys the support of Hizbullah. Lebanese president Michell Souleiman threw his lot behind it too. This could indeed bode well for the stability of Lebanese politics for the foreseeable future. To be sure, national unity governments often avoid tackling controversial and divisive issues whose mere discussion may well bring down the coalition government. This is why such issues as reforming electoral laws and Hizbullah's arms are not likely to be addressed by this government.
More trouble can come yet from the southern borders. Israel claims to have intercepted an Iranian arms shipment bound for Latika, Syria. The missiles are alleged to have been sent for Hizbullah. A number of senior Israel Defense Forces figures have also warned Hizbullah of massive retaliation, should the Lebanese militia avenge the assassination of its military mastermind, Emad Moughneih. Hassan Nassrallah, the Secretary General of Hizbullah, speaking on "Martyr's Day" issued a stark warning for Israel not to launch a war on Lebanon, or risk the "crushing of its army." He neither affirmed nor denied the Israeli claim of his group's possession of 325 kilometer-range missiles, though he promised any land invasion to be nothing short of a quagmire. Hizbullah's political bureau chief Mohammed Qomati also warned that "all cities, military bases, factories, and settlements in Israel are within the organization's firing range." Qomati continued, "The enemy knows that any offensive initiated under the current conditions will ensure his total defeat, will change the balance of power in our favor, and will bring about the end of its entity."
Hizbullah's secretary general had select words for the Obama administration as well. After accusing Washington of deliberately backpedaling on the settlements stance, he admonished his followers that the Obama administration's "infinite" commitment to Israel's interests security is unprecedented. Nasrallah painted a pro-Israeli Obama administration that does not care about the needs of the Arab world. The Cairo speech was a scam, he implied.
As Hariri struggles to stabilize his country domestically, Lebanon's foremost challenge appears to be avoiding another devastating war with Israel. Neither Nasrallah nor Ashkinazi are helping.