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Is the Lebanese government crisis inching towards a good solution? 2/2/2011

For more than six months severe anxiety has dominated Lebanon and its expatriate community. Divisions were increasing in intensity by the day and the government was gradually sliding into complete paralysis. Everybody has been concerned about what may happen when the STL’s (Special Tribunal for Lebanon) list of indictments is finalized and becomes public. Hezbollah anticipating that some of the party’s senior members will be high on the list, mounted an aggressive campaign, based on a combination of intelligence data, rationalization and veiled threats, to discredit the tribunal. Leaders from the March 8 opposition repeatedly said that Lebanon after the indictments would be very different from before, but there were no specifications about what changes to expect. The general atmosphere was that of pessimism and fear of suffocating tensions, economic collapse, or violence in the form of possible civil war or a new war with Israel.

Flurries of alarming headlines flooded the internet and various print and visual media. “Apocalypse Now? Maybe not”, “Lebanon’s hour of reckoning”, “Lebanon near mass suicide” and “Lebanon on the Edge” are few selected sample titles of the dozens of depressing editorials, analyses and review articles. The general spirit on the Lebanese street and the talk in the living rooms were concordant with this level of anxiety, pessimism and near hopelessness. There were no reassuring solutions on the horizon and all people could do is await possible doomsday, and hope for survival with the least personal damage.

As rumors and leaks spread that the indictment list may become ready, sometime in December of 2010 or January of 2011, all the Lebanese could wish for was that the Christmas-New Year holiday season may come and go uneventfully. There was a general feeling that the decision makers will honor the religious holidays by avoiding confrontation and violence as they have usually been inclined to do. D-day was therefore expected to occur most probably in January of 2011. Sure enough during the second week of January the March 8 representatives resigned from the so called “unity government” because of strong disagreement over the issue of “false witnesses”, a number of individuals who were interrogated and may have provided questionable or misleading information. They secured enough resignations to constitutionally dissolve the Hariri government, at the time he was in Washington meeting with President Obama.

The next week i.e. the third week of January UN prosecutor Daniel Bellemare filed the indictment under seal before the court’s pretrial judge Daniel Fransen. It is generally believed that it could be several weeks before the identities of the suspects become public. During the same time there was street talk that the March 8 group may already have enough votes to form a new one sided anti-American opposition government. Questions were then raised whether Lebanon will become another Gaza and there was wild speculation on the internet about all kinds of contingencies or retributions, which even included unrealistic military interventions. There was also utopia about further divisions in the small country, with a very recent article entitled “Lebanon may split, expert says.”

The constitutional nomination of Prime Minister designate (PMD) Najib Mikati (despite possible underlying intimidation and coercion) seems to have quieted much of these rumors, fears and concerns. His record as a Prime Minister of a transitional government to supervise the 2005 elections that followed the Cedar Revolution was judged as good to excellent. Following his nomination he declared his attachment to moderation and unity. There were also prompt reports that he already made reassuring overtures to the United States and emphasized that he will make all possible efforts to convince representatives of March 14 coalition to join his anticipated government. He apparently also spoke of his preference to form a moderate independent government, constituted predominantly of technocrats. Both he and Sayed Hasan Nasrallah stated that no restrictive conditions were imposed on the PMD, other than the commitment to “protect the resistance”. Such commitment was included, in one form or another, in the platform of most, if not all, recent Lebanese governments.

Shortly after his nomination, the street unrests that erupted were promptly quieted following an appeal to calm by outgoing PM Hariri. However concerns remained about what form of government to expect. Questions continue to be raised as to how much freedom he will have, to do the “right thing”. Reportedly he met with US Ambassador Connelly to state his desire for continued good relations with America and the West, and she emphasized to him the need to restate Lebanon’s commitment to international resolutions, including cooperation with the STL. The next logical question is whether he has the freedom, desire and ability to make such commitments?

The Lebanese President had also stated earlier that he would not approve and cosign the decrees for any new government that does not respect the Lebanese constitution and consensus. Obviously, this and the above factors may serve as a double-edged sword. With some political savvy, of which the PMD has plenty, and a lot of luck, they could serve to facilitate the formation of a high quality government, which will be effective in navigating Lebanon through the rough waters of these difficult times. Otherwise, they could constitute insurmountable obstacles.

Several months ago, a well known columnist wrote an editorial about another country entitled “Right to exist nonnegotiable.” Such title should actually be more applicable to Lebanon, whose stability and survival have been repeatedly threatened due to outside influences and interference from various directions. The existence of the small country could become meaningless if its diversity, democracy, freedom and moderation are destroyed. We are confident the PMD is very aware of these principles, the protection of which should be one of his highest priorities. The fact that the PMD ran for parliament as a pro-sovereignty March 14 ally, and that Hezbollah and the March 8 group secured his nomination through the normal constitutional process, should make it easier for him to support and defend the basic Lebanese principles. With patience and perseverance he may succeed in forming a real unity government, and if that is not possible, he should go for a government which will smooth the existing tensions, rather than exacerbate divisions. 

There is a volcanic atmosphere prevailing in many Middle East countries. Eruptions could occur at anytime. Tunisia and Egypt have already experienced large scale eruptions. Smaller street demonstrations have taken place in Yemen, Jordan and even in Lebanon. There were some comments recently, that the current atmosphere in the Middle East may necessitate the formation of a quick fix government, even if has to be one sided. Nothing is farther from the truth. While a one sided Marh 8, slight majority government may be safe security-wise, it may turn out to be very high risk economically. The basis of the turmoil in the neighboring countries where major eruptions occurred has been predominately economic. Lebanon can not afford to take such risk. If all efforts to form a true unity government fail, the PMD should consider forming his upcoming government on the basis of reform, moderation and the separation of ministerial from parliamentary positions. While the participating political groups may propose candidates, the PMD should work with the President to set up some criteria for final selection. The goal would be to form a council of ministers, whose members can work together, and address the country’s chronic and acute problems. In addition to competence, integrity and moderation, some candidates may need to have geopolitical potential. Friendship or understanding towards Syria and other Arab countries as well as some access or influence in America, France and other western countries are very important at this time. Firebrands who take pleasure in attacking and loudly criticizing their political opponents should be avoided. It would also be helpful to look for the idealized criteria within the expatriate community, to supplement the choices that are available inside Lebanon. By giving some attention and consideration to the expatriate community, the PMD could provide an opportunity for President Sleiman to fulfill a commitment he placed as high priority in his investiture speech

The American Lebanese Foundation realizes that there are no ideal solutions that will satisfy everybody, particularly during these sensitive and difficult times. Nevertheless idealism may become feasible, desirable, and even necessary, when adequate leadership is available. We are well aware that some have thought that Lebanon had to choose between justice and stability, while most of us know better that the country needs both. The STL which was intended to help Lebanon find truth and reach justice has unfortunately made some false steps and errors. Consequently an important and large segment of the Lebanese society completely lost confidence in its work. Scientifically, since errors can be corrected and misleading testimony may be dismissed, the credibility of STL may not be judged with certainty until its final product becomes available for scrutiny. If the leaked possibility of indictment of Hezbollah members is real, and based on shaky or non convincing evidence, all Lebanese will have no problem rejecting such indictments. The apparent challenge is to reconcile the differences about judging the STL before or after the product of its work becomes public. It is hoped that the PMD through his discussions with March eight leadership, has already figured out the formula that will bridge the gap and give a chance to real justice while protecting Lebanon’s stability.


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