Saturday, July 16, 2011

Lebanon: The "Bugbear" Of Civil Strife Is Over The Special Tribunal Or Over Power?

By Walid Choucair
More than a year ago, civil strife was just around the corner in Lebanon. Hezbollah was warning of this possibility in a number of news conferences, held by the party's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. In June 2010, when Nasrallah warned that the indictment by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which back then was predicted to appear in a few months' time, would cause civil strife, he said that then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri "knows what he should do". This led to the hurried convening of a summit between Saudi Arabia and Syria in Damascus on 29 July; then this was followed by the visit by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz and Syrian President Bashar Assad to Beirut the next day. There, they held the famous summit during which they agreed on Arab guarantees for continued stability in Lebanon. One day before the visit to Beirut, the Syrian president had informed the Saudi monarch that the issuing of the STL indictment would lead to unrest in Lebanon, and that the leaders of Hezbollah had visited him a day earlier, to express their anxiety, and that they had occupied the country and were spread out throughout most regions of Lebanon.
In his news conferences, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah indicated that Hariri and Arab leaders could do something. This "something" was, in the view of Damascus and Hezbollah, an attempt by Saudi Arabia, with Security Council states, to halt the STL or abolish it. When everyone discovered that this was an intentionally impossible request, and as a result of Arab and international contacts, there was a focus on attempting to delay the indictment until efforts to arrive at an inter-Lebanese settlement could provide a way out of the indictment, if it actually had to be issued someday and ended up accusing Hezbollah. The pressures exerted by the party at the time, even though it always declared it did not fear the indictment, or the "strife" that was being prepared for Lebanon, led to the establishment of what was later called, in the fall of 2010, negotiations over the S-S (Saudi Arabia and Syria) agreement. This should have led to a conference of reconciliation and coming-clean about the past, thereby treating the repercussions of the STL, which could not be abolished.
A few days ago (on 2 and 5 July), Nasrallah said there would be no civil strife between the Lebanese, and particularly between Sunnis and Shiites. This was a few days after the issuing of the indictment, which remains secret. Yesterday, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general, Sheikh Naim Qassem said, "Certain figures and media expected that a great and dangerous thing would take place in Lebanon after the issuing of the indictment. The indictment was issued, and went to Interpol. As far as we are concerned, nothing happened. It was a political-media discussion with no impact on the ground."
He, therefore, believed what Hariri said throughout 2010, namely that "there will be no civil strife in Lebanon, and we are able – Sayyed Nasrallah, Speaker Nabih Berri and I, and others – to prevent strife."
What changed between July 2010 and today, for the hints and threats of strife to disappear, as Hezbollah reassures the Lebanese that stability will not be harmed?
The only thing that is different is that Saad Hariri is not in power. Were the earlier threats about civil strife due to his being prime minister?
In fact, Hariri, while in that post, did not control things completely; his partner in government was Hezbollah, which was stronger on the ground than the state, whose government Hariri headed. In fact, the S-S agreement also covered finding a formula to move beyond the STL, through forgiveness, which would limit Hezbollah’s authority on the ground, in favor of a different type of partnership inside state institutions. It was hoped that this political settlement would unlock a dynamic of seeing the state recover some of its authority. This was the problem for Hezbollah, and not the STL indictment; it is confident about its surplus power, which allows it to confront and overcome the indictment.
A comparison of the political rhetoric that prevailed in 2010 and the discourse of today allows us to conclude that Hezbollah wanted total authority, instead of a settlement on dividing power between it and other groups or Hariri. The regional situation would not allow such a thing, while the time had not come for a settlement of that kind, especially since Iran was not a part of S-S.
Another conclusion generated by this comparison is that the "bugbear" of civil strife is used a lot these days, on the occasion of Arab revolutions, when it comes to giving up power or allowing others to share it through moving to political pluralism. It is a bugbear that disappears when power comes to rest with the side that is hinting at strife.
-This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 15/07/2011

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