Lebanon’s Post-Doha Political Theater

by Stacey Philbrick Yadav | published July 23, 2008

For more on “the events” of May 2008, see Jim Quilty, “Lebanon’s Brush with Civil War,” Middle East Report Online, May 20, 2008.  

For background on the government crisis in Lebanon, see Jim Quilty, “Winter of Lebanon’s Discontents,” Middle East Report Online, January 26, 2007.

After 18 months of political paralysis punctuated by episodes of civil strife, Lebanon finally has a “national unity” cabinet—but the achievement has come at a steep price. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and new President Michel Suleiman announced the slate for the 30-member cabinet on July 11, six weeks, and much agonizing and public criticism, after Lebanon’s major political factions agreed on Suleiman’s presidential candidacy and principles of power sharing at a summit in the Qatari capital of Doha. As with much else in Lebanon, however, the words “national unity” are sorely at odds with reality. If anything, the politicking behind the composition of this cabinet has deepened the polarization of the country. The battle lines are largely familiar: the classic sectarian divides, as well as economic and regional disparities sharpened by the lagging pace of reconstruction following the 2006 war. And the March 8 and March 14 forces, the two cross-sectarian blocs named for the protests organized by their respective camps during the 2005 “Beirut spring,” remain in polar opposition even as they sit together at the cabinet table.

Indeed, anyone professing shock at Lebanon’s recent travails breathed in too deeply the heady rhetoric of national unity that was in the air that spring, as Syrian troops withdrew under pressure from the March 14 protesters. While the coalition government formed after the 2005 parliamentary elections included members of both the March 14 majority and the March 8 opposition parties, it was an uneasy coalition at best and should never have been expected to last. Today, after the 2006 war with Israel and the outbreak of violence among Lebanon’s factions in May, bullet holes stare unrepaired from Hamra Street storefronts, displaced mothers with small children beg for change in middle-class neighborhoods and the army functions as little more than a tepid peacekeeping force. How did this come to pass?

The events of 2005, from the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and the ensuing “Syria out!” movement to the Syrian withdrawal and the elections themselves, were a chronicle of the March 14 bloc ascendant. The two Shi‘i parties, Hizballah and Amal, and their allies in the March 8 bloc were newly labeled as the opposition and in a precarious spot; the debate over disarmament of Hizballah’s Islamic Resistance militia was particularly heated. Staging another round of protests in the downtown district beginning in December 2006, the opposition adopted an unnerving tactic: the political ultimatum. If the March 14 majority did not allow its rivals effective veto power over government decisions, the opposition said, the opposition would boycott government. They ultimately did just that, escalating an 18-month spiral of tension that culminated in the May violence. Today, back in the cabinet (with veto in hand) and celebrating Hizballah’s July 16 exchange of two dead Israeli soldiers for four live Lebanese prisoners and the remains of nearly 200 others, the opposition is consolidating the winnings from its deftly played hand. The March 14 forces’ parliamentary majority has thrown down gauntlets of its own in the post-Doha moment, though to little effect.

It would be a mistake, however, to read the ultimatums of either camp solely or even principally as gambits designed to improve the position of the opposition vis-à-vis the majority, or vice versa. Instead, the ultimatums highlight an emerging complication in Lebanon’s already labyrinthine politics, that of contention within the March 8 and March 14 blocs. Beirut’s political debate may appear to be increasingly bipolar, but it is the politics within each of these two poles that best explain not only the delay in the formation of the new cabinet, but also the prospects for good government in the months leading up to the 2009 polls.

A Recent History of Lebanese Ultimatums

Threats of non-participation are a well-established form of political theater in Lebanon, and one subject to savage critique in local media. Theatrical calls for boycotts (of elections or of cabinets) are a common way of denying legitimacy to the sitting government or rejecting its jurisdiction. The opposition threatened to walk out of the cabinet if it was not granted a veto, and it made good on the threat, strengthened by a series of sit-ins and strikes. Parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri effectively blocked the selection of Michel Suleiman for months by refusing to call a vote on his candidacy, threatening (and making good on the threat) not to fulfill his constitutional role. Each of these ultimatums contributed to the heightened tensions that erupted in violence in May, when the March 14 majority initially rejected yet another opposition demand, namely that the Siniora government cancel an investigation into the activities of airport security chief Gen. Wafiq Shuqayr, accused by the March 14 bloc of helping to smuggle weapons to Hizballah’s Islamic Resistance. In each of these cases, the Hizballah-led opposition issued an ultimatum, it was ignored and the opposition followed through on its threat.

Following the May 21 Doha agreement, which “settled” the immediate crisis, a new round of ultimatums, also in the form of threats of non-participation, has shaped Lebanon’s political landscape. The terms of the agreement stipulated that Parliament would agree to the presidency of Suleiman, whose perceived neutrality as head of the Lebanese army during the May conflict earned him considerable good will, as well as an expanded “national unity” cabinet. Suleiman was indeed chosen on May 25 and he promptly reappointed Siniora as prime minister, charging the latter with assembling the elusive consensus cabinet. At first, Lebanese were glued to newspapers and broadcasts trying to keep up with the newest political challenge. But, as days passed into weeks, ennui set in. Siniora asserted repeatedly that compromise was at hand, even as the demands of the rival camps multiplied and armed clashes claimed at least a few lives per week, keeping civil conflict at a simmer.

Intra-Bloc Wrangling

By the terms of the Doha agreement, 16 seats in the new 30-member cabinet were allocated to members of the parliamentary majority, the March 14 bloc. An additional 11 portfolios were slated for the March 8 opposition bloc, with the remaining three to be chosen by the president. It was an unusual formula for Lebanon, where such allocations are traditionally made on the basis of confessional affiliation, rather than political loyalties. (Such was the logic of the 1990 accord at Ta’if that declared a formal end to the 1975-1990 civil war.) Negotiations for the new cabinet suggested instead that Christian members of Gen. Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, for instance, would be empaneled because Aoun belongs to the March 8 bloc, and not because they are Christian. Some political leaders expressed guarded optimism that this polarization would simplify the dizzying complexity of Lebanese politics. Because each of the two main blocs is cross-sectarian, however, the delicate game of ministerial balancing has rested as much, if not more, on intra-bloc politics and coordination, with Aoun and the majority’s Saad al-Hariri standing to lose (and fighting to gain) the most within their respective groupings.

And this is where the ultimatums came back in. Hariri, heir to the Future Movement of his father Rafiq, issued the first of the post-Doha round. He is the most significant Sunni political leader in Lebanon today, and Beirut is his base, both literally and figuratively, as the capital is not only where he lives and houses the movement’s media and political offices, but also is arguably home to the weightiest Sunni community in Lebanon. “The events” of May, as the violence is euphemistically dubbed in the Lebanese media, unfolded largely in West Beirut, in neighborhoods associated with the Future Movement and Hariri, and along Sunni-Shi‘i lines. The agreement at Doha ended the fighting, but did nothing to address the fact that Hariri’s movement was exposed as unable to defend itself on its home turf.

Thus weakened in the eyes of his fellow March 14 bloc politicians, not to mention his constituents, Hariri had a great deal at stake in the allocation of ministerial portfolios. He set about trying to regain lost credibility by steering important cabinet posts the way of Sunni members of the Future Movement. Then, on June 4, a Future organizer was wounded in an attack, possibly carried out by Hizballah gunmen, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, and Hariri threatened to pull out of cabinet negotiations until such violence stopped. Given the location of the attack, Hariri’s threat of non-participation seemed to be directed at Hizballah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah. The specter of a Sunni boycott, after all, could disrupt the delicate consensus-building process that Nasrallah had waited so long to begin. But Hariri’s subsequent behavior suggests he was making a power play within the March 14 bloc, aiming to strengthen his negotiating position in the assignment of the 16 majority ministries. Future-Hizballah clashes continued—on June 17, three were killed in fighting in the Bekaa Valley—but Hariri did not make good on his threat. In the end, the Future Movement was allocated only three Sunni ministers, plus one independent with close ties to Hariri’s party.

A second, similarly veiled intra-bloc ultimatum came from the controversial former general, Michel Aoun. As the principal non-Shi‘i figure within the Hizballah-led opposition bloc, Aoun has also watched his stock fall amid the ascendancy (if not exactly popularity) of Hizballah and Amal following the May violence and, especially, the July 16 prisoner exchange with Israel. The general became increasingly eager to ensure that his allies remember his political significance as head of a party that won 21 seats (16 percent of the total) in Parliament in the 2005 elections. His subsequent demand that a member of his Free Patriotic Movement be allocated one of the “sovereign portfolios,” a term for the Ministries of Defense, Interior, Foreign Affairs and Finance, was designed to protect his privileges. The “sovereign portfolios,” with the access to power and patronage that each affords, are generally sought after by members of all of the different factions, and Aoun unquestionably saw the post-Doha negotiations as the time to extract from his opposition peers the price of his political loyalty during the difficult months preceding.

While the Doha text is not explicit on the point, participants in the process maintain that the agreement requires that the four “sovereign” ministries be divided equally between the March 8 and March 14 blocs. Very early in the process, the Defense and Interior Ministries were pledged to cabinet members chosen by the president, in a bid to further extend the perceived neutrality of the army and intelligence apparatus. This move left only Finance and Foreign Affairs to be split up between the majority and the opposition. For the past 18 years, the Foreign Ministry has been headed by a member of Berri’s Amal movement. Siniora himself was finance minister under Rafiq al-Hariri, and hoped to keep the post for someone from his camp. None of these aspirations would have delayed the cabinet formation but for the ultimatum issued by Aoun, who threatened to leave the discussions if his party was not given Foreign Affairs or Finance. He also explicitly demanded that Amal give up the Foreign Ministry in the interest of “rotation in power.” Once again, Aoun’s appears to have be an intra-bloc thrust at Amal, rather than at the legitimacy of the future government, but opposition and majority politicians alike blasted him for contributing to the deadlock.

Unpacking the New Cabinet

In the end, Aoun’s party did not take either the Foreign Affairs or Finance Ministries, but the former general was richly rewarded for his “compromise,” taking a total of five of the 11 opposition seats in the new cabinet, in comparison to Amal’s three. Of these five, two are “service portfolios” and one is the deputy premiership. And despite all of the attention paid to the “sovereign” portfolios, Aoun no doubt recognizes that it may ultimately be the “service portfolios”—and the goods, services and jobs they distribute—that matter most in this caretaker cabinet. If Lebanon’s recent history is any indicator, the composition of the cabinet will have a decisive impact on the outcome of the parliamentary race in 2009, with those who control the important dispensaries of patronage carrying the day. Here again, the opposition has consolidated its power in relation to the majority, with nearly twice as many service ministries, despite the 11:16 ratio of opposition to majority cabinet members. As for Aoun, whose party was not represented at all in the outgoing cabinet, he bolstered himself considerably within his own alliance, and likely at the polls.

By Lebanon’s ever present sectarian arithmetic, the new cabinet at least superficially appears to balance power, if not exactly demographic realities, quite well, allocating six seats each to members of the Sunni, Shi‘i and Maronite communities, with smaller but still significant shares of seats to the Orthodox and Druze communities, and token representation to the smaller Christian groups. All six of the Sunni seats, however, are drawn from the parties of the March 14 majority, and five of the six Shi‘i ministers are from the parties aligned with the opposition. That the Greek Orthodox, Druze and even Maronite ministers are more evenly distributed reinforces the idea that Lebanon’s sectarian politics are once again becoming aligned with broader regional political battles. Just as the politics of Arab nationalism were central to understanding the polarizations of an earlier generation of Lebanese, the continuing war in Iraq and the prospect of Iranian nuclear proliferation have made the Sunni-Shi‘i divide the organizing motif of conflict in Lebanon today. As one Shi‘i political leader said, “The game is becoming bigger; it’s macro now. The game has no in-between. It’s black and white.” He added that polarization between Sunni and Shi‘i communities, in Lebanon and throughout the region, is helping to blur the distinction between Amal and Hizballah. The two parties, he said, have had “no choice but to unite.”

The Human Costs of Political Theater

Throughout the south of the country, where the Shi‘i population is historically concentrated, signs which once clearly distinguished “Amal” towns from “Hizballah” towns are now more difficult to decipher. Posters and banners that once displayed the faces of Nabih Berri or Hasan Nasrallah in isolation now show the two leaders standing side by side, atop slogans like “In unity, rebuilding the nation’s homes.” Beirut and its periphery seem more than simply miles apart in many ways. The political loyalties of the March 8-March 14 divide, for instance, do not eclipse sectarian divisions. Aoun and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, a mainstay of the March 14 bloc, are joined in many minds simply as Christian leaders, despite holding substantial political differences and belonging to rival political camps. As a man from Beirut’s southern suburbs joked after encountering the Berri-Nasrallah slogan outside the Tyre municipality, “In Beirut, [the same slogan] would read, ‘Geagea and Aoun…in unity, dividing the nation’s homes!’

If the sanguine calculations of Beirut’s political class are the subject of jaded humor, it is worth remembering the high human costs of government impasses, past and present. Any visitor to Beirut’s once lustrous downtown district can easily see the tarnish caused by close to two years of ongoing protest activity, but off the main streets and deeper into the residential neighborhoods of the city and its periphery, rising prices and declining services are also taking a palpable toll. The cost of basic commodities has doubled, in many cases, since 2005. In early June, the Beirut daily al-Safir ran a column recording a 10-15 percent increase in the price of fuels, cooking oils, lentils, cheese and other staples in the (highly unstable) month of May-June 2008 alone.

As always, some sectors of the population are better equipped to weather these challenges than others. In Bint Jubayl, the town hit hardest by Israeli bombing and shelling during the 2006 war, I ate lunch with a family whose house consists of a (reconstructed) kitchen and bathroom, and a large pile of salvaged stones from their former three-bedroom home. They sleep in the garden, under a canvas enclosure, while they save up the money to rebuild the rest, bit by bit. Before the war, the owner of the home had been an investor in a local electricity provider, owning a share of a generator that supplied power to his neighborhood. A casualty of the 2006 war, the electricity source has been repaired with funding from the Qatari government, but rather than restoring local generators (and the income of their shareholders), the Qatari planners have chosen to build larger facilities to be placed under the control of the central government. While this choice makes sense as a capacity-building measure, and a means of strengthening the role of the state in the south, it also leaves families like this one economically vulnerable. That the Qatari government is a Sunni government with close ties to the majority in the Siniora government and to the United States does not go unnoticed in Bint Jubayl. Deadlock in Beiruti high politics meets with the on-the-ground politics of reconstruction to leave my host embittered and even closer to the opposition than he had been before the war.

The divisive events of the period since the 2006 war have led to a “bipolarization” of politics in Lebanon, around the March 8 and March 14 blocs, but this process has not eliminated either intra-bloc or sectarian politics, even if it has, at times, masked them in a new rhetoric. The terms of the Doha agreement specifically prohibit resignations of ministers or other moves that “obstruct the government’s actions,” but members of Lebanon’s political class have nonetheless used ultimatums to delay the formation of the new cabinet in obstructionist ways. What is clearest at this stage is that these threats of non-participation have been intended less to stymie the formation of a cabinet, or to splinter the fragile majority-opposition “consensus,” than to secure intra-bloc advantages for the two weakest members of the respective coalitions, Michel Aoun and Saad al-Hariri. The greatest hope, amid violations of basic terms of Doha by both sides, is that the core purpose of the agreement—maintaining the peace—will endure. The more likely scenario is that the Doha agreement, like the Ta’if agreement before it, is destined for partial implementation, a victim of the theatrics of Lebanon’s political stage.

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