Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

The year 2011 has brought Lebanon’s political tug of war into the streets again, with thousands of protesters burning tires and blocking roads over the apparent failure of their candidate to secure the office of prime minister. But months of hype to the contrary, this time the raucous demonstrations were not staged by Hizballah and its allies in the March 8 coalition so named after a day of protests in 2005 designed to “thank” Syria before its withdrawal of forces from Lebanon. Instead, the protests were mounted by the rival March 14 alliance, so named for the day of “Syria out!” rallies that followed less than a week later.

The protests erupted on the evening of January 25 after news reports made it clear that a majority in Parliament would side against the incumbent premier, billionaire Saad al-Hariri, whose fractious “national unity” government collapsed on January 12 after more than a third of its ministers resigned. The resignations were an expression of protest over Beirut’s collaboration with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a hybrid UN-Lebanese body investigating the 2005 bomb blast that killed Saad al-Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, and 23 others (including one who died weeks later). All but one of those who walked out came from the opposition March 8 alliance, which had warned for months that the Tribunal was preparing to frame figures belonging to one of its key member parties, Hizballah, for the assassination, and that it would bring down the government if the latter continued to cooperate with the Tribunal.  

Some members of March 14 called the resignation a “coup d’état,” but the Lebanese constitution is unequivocal: If a cabinet loses a third of its members, it is automatically dissolved and the president consults with members of Parliament to determine which of the country’s Sunni Muslim politicians (the office is reserved for them) has the most support in the legislature to form a new one.

After months of breathless warnings that Hizballah was weeks, days or even hours from carrying out an armed takeover, the only drama was in the timing: On January 12, just as Hariri was meeting in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama, his tenure was ended.

A Consensus Candidate

The government collapse started with the defection of MP and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a March 14 stalwart since the alliance’s formation following Rafiq al-Hariri’s death, and six members of his Democratic Gathering. Jumblatt, whose adherence to the Hariri camp had constituted a major departure from his record, had been increasingly at odds with some March 14 stances since August 2009. Now he completed his volte-face, opining that the Tribunal could not deliver justice because it had degenerated into a “bazaar of blackmail and counter-blackmail.”  Absent other changes Jumblatt’s defection would have deadlocked Parliament, with both March 8 and March 14 commanding 64 seats.

But then former Maronite warlord Samir Geagea announced that his Lebanese Forces party would stand by Hariri. He also ridiculed the expected March 8 candidate, veteran former Prime Minister Omar Karami, and this outburst probably ruined Hariri’s chances. Karami is the younger brother of the late Rashid Karami, another slain premier whose assassination in 1987 is widely attributed to the aforementioned Geagea. Rashid Karami was a highly respected statesman, particularly in the northern city of Tripoli, which he represented — and it so happens that a couple of more independent-minded MPs, people on whose votes March 14 had been counting, hail from the same place. Geagea’s comments were taken as an insult to the memory of one of Tripoli’s favorite sons. If even one of the Tripoli bloc had bolted, March 8 would have been in the driver’s seat.  

One of these Tripoli MPs was Najib Miqati, a telecommunications tycoon whose brief tenure as interim prime minister in 2005 earned him considerable credit for managing the first elections held after Syrian forces withdrew following the elder Hariri’s death. Shortly after Geagea’s attack on Karami, Miqati announced that he had put his name forward as a compromise candidate. This move earned him all manner of accusations from the Hariri camp, which sent its supporters into the streets to express their rage at the “traitor.”

Although the pro-Hariri camp has continued to cry “coup,” accused March 8 of sowing sectarian divisions and claimed that the altered balance of power in Parliament violates the will of the electorate, March 8’s maneuver was carried out in accordance with constitutional provisions. The only “violation” was of the pledge made during negotiations in 2008 at Doha that the opposition ministers would not bring down the government. But when their rivals continued to champion the Tribunal, effectively going against their own promise at Doha not to govern unilaterally, the opposition judged themselves free to do so.

So is Miqati really “the Hizballah candidate,” as Future TV, the mouthpiece television station of Hariri’s Future Movement, dismissed him during its evening newscast on January 24? It is hard to see how. At the most basic level, even the walkout that brought Hariri down included just two Hizballah members. The rest came from the Free Patriotic Movement (4), Amal (3) and former cabinet minister Suleiman Franjieh’s Marada grouping — plus one non-aligned minister, ‘Adnan Sayyid Husayn. Even when Jumblatt’s change of allegiance made Hariri’s ouster possible, March 8’s preferred candidate was the aging Karami, certainly more friendly to their interests but hardly a Hizballah puppet. There were still plenty of congenial Sunni politicians to pick from, but these men were bypassed in favor of Miqati precisely because he was thought capable of gaining consensus support.

Roots of the Crisis

Saad al-Hariri’s cabinet was an unlikely collection of committed enemies that took four months to be formed following the parliamentary elections of June 2010. Its unwieldy structure and misleading moniker, however, were not solely a result of how close those polls were, nor even of the long-standing reliance on “consensus cabinets” to compensate for the built-in disparities of the Lebanese political model. Instead, the formula was determined by the 2008 Doha accord, a Qatari-brokered arrangement to alleviate an 18-month political crisis that had degenerated into violence. Primarily, the idea was to prevent March 8 and March 14 from resorting to the deeply divisive and highly destabilizing strategies that had wrought the crisis in the first place. March 14, led by the Future Movement, had taken to ignoring the tradition — honored by virtually every government since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war — of shelving decisions when strong disagreement existed within the cabinet. March 8, known primarily for its inclusion of Hizballah but composed mostly (in Parliament at least) of former Lebanese army commander Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, eventually reacted by pulling its ministers out of cabinet in late 2006.

That walkout stemmed from the creation of the same tribunal that has sparked the current saga. For months, representatives of March 14 had been negotiating with the UN to have that body create a panel to unravel the mystery of assassination of Hariri, which the latter’s political heirs blamed presumptively on the Syrian government. March 8 voices were exceedingly wary of this route, particularly since Hizballah had just emerged from a hard-fought war with Israel and remained very much in the diplomatic crosshairs of the US and its allies. A de jure UN court, the opposition argued, would de facto be a US court, and since Hizballah’s resistance activities had long benefited from Syrian support, the fear was that Washington would try to use the Tribunal to cripple one or both of these parties in order to remove two of the most considerable obstacles to US policy — and Israeli hegemony — in the region.

Nonetheless, March 14 continued to negotiate unilaterally with the UN Security Council, largely freezing the foreign minister, Fawzi Salloukh, a March 8 figure, out of the process. When March 8 was presented with a draft of the pact — which had yet to be translated into Arabic — less than two days before it was to be voted on, Hizballah and the other Shi‘i party in the cabinet, the Amal movement, pulled their ministers out and declared the government dissolved. The cabinet, they said, no longer enjoyed representation from all the country’s major sects, as mandated by the constitution. For good measure, Amal leader Nabih Berri announced in his capacity as speaker of Parliament that this body would no longer recognize the government. But then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, also of the Future Movement, refused to accept the resignations, dismissed Berri’s declaration as obstructionism and pledged to carry on.

The opposition answered with a round-the-clock sit-in in downtown Beirut, vowing to remain there until the government fell. So began an 18-month spectacle punctuated by periodic clashes between rival demonstrators and a continuation of assassinations (mostly of March 14 figures but also of individuals whose affiliations, official or otherwise, were closer to March 8). Along the way, the Tribunal produced regular reports and a steady drip of leaks that all pointed in the direction of Syria as the culprit in the Hariri killing.

The next showdown came in May 2008, when Siniora’s government announced two decisions whose ultimate motivations remain something of a mystery, principally because while each was something that Hizballah would necessarily view as a mortal threat, neither was one that the rump government could enforce. One was the sacking of the head of security — widely viewed as a Hizballah ally — at Beirut’s international airport; the other was the dismantling of the Islamist movement’s private communications network.

Armed men from Hizballah and its allies swept into parts of Beirut and other cities controlled by the Future Movement and some of its partners. In areas where Hizballah itself conducted the offensive, those March 14 gunmen who did not flee were for the most part systematically disarmed. In others the scenes were far less sanitary, with gangs of March 8 gunmen burning and looting offices and media outlets associated with March 14. In some of the few places where March 14 sympathizers gained the upper hand (Tripoli, for example), several opposition supporters were tortured or executed. Dozens of men — some claim close to 200 — were killed in the clashes.

The fighting ended when all of the belligerents agreed to meet in Qatar, under the auspices of that country’s increasingly influential emir, in an effort to settle their many differences. This parley produced the Doha accord, which enabled the reopening of Parliament (and therefore the pro forma parliamentary “election” of Michel Suleiman as the new president), the end of the sit-in and the formation of a so-called “national unity government.” The two sides also exchanged some very sensible undertakings: March 14 would not govern unilaterally, and March 8 would not bring down the government.

The two camps have since sat in two cabinets together, but the period has been one of cold war rather than peaceful coexistence. Because Lebanon lacks a professional civil service, the rival coalitions’ disagreements have been translated into lengthy bouts of bureaucratic paralysis that have made the Lebanese state — an empty and becalmed vessel at the best of times — even more ineffectual. Power and water shortages continue to worsen; public schools, roads and hospitals continue to deteriorate; and inexplicable delays continue to prolong administrative procedures for everything from business registration to immigration status.

The two sides have done nothing to address their differences over the Tribunal or, therefore, to prevent the present crisis. The issue acquired real urgency in the spring of 2010 due to, of all things, a rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia, respectively the key foreign backers of March 8 and March 14. Far from trickling down to their Lebanese clients, the thaw between the two regional heavyweights actually initiated a countdown to the collapse of Saad al-Hariri’s government. As soon as Riyadh and Damascus had reconciled, the focus of the Tribunal shifted from Syria to Hizballah. Worse yet, no one knew how much time was on the clock because that depended on when the prosecution would submit indictments, if and when the pre-trial judge would confirm them and whether or not the names of the accused would be made public.

Questionable Justice

The question of the Tribunal’s objectivity has been all but completely ignored in mainstream Western media coverage. The first chief prosecutor, German national Detlev Mehlis, arrived with a reputation (deserved or not) for having served the purposes of the US and Israeli intelligence services in previous cases involving political violence. His appointment therefore cast a pall of suspicion over the entire UN role in the investigation, and his performance did not disappoint his detractors. Early on, Mehlis publicly pointed a finger of blame at Damascus, but no solid evidence ever emerged, and progress reports issued under his successor, Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz, completely backed away from that position at the official level. Nonetheless, almost daily leaks from the Tribunal continued to presume Syrian involvement — often couched in the very same language employed by March 14 politicians.

In addition, and despite his denials, it now seems clear that it was Mehlis who convinced the authorities in Beirut to arrest four senior Lebanese security officials in the aftermath of the assassination. According to a leaked US diplomatic cable, Brammertz admitted as much in a conversation with US officials — and even allowed that their continued detention was based not on any evidence against them but on fears that their release might cause political instability. As a result, the men spent almost four years in custody until the Tribunal finally ordered their release in April 2009 because “they cannot be considered suspects or accused persons.”

Since then, one of the generals, ex-intelligence chief Jamil Sayyid, has applied for access to whatever evidence and/or testimony was used against him and the identities of those who provided it. Thus far he has been stymied by Brammertz’s successor, Canadian prosecutor Daniel Bellemare. Among other things, Bellemare has argued that the Tribunal has no jurisdiction to consider Sayyid’s request because the Tribunal did not officially order the arrests. Portions of his argument were almost openly mocked by the pre-trial panel, which then rejected them. Bellemare has yet to comply and continues his attempts to have that ruling overturned.

Leaked State Department communications also indicate that all three of the prosecutors have met officially with the US ambassador to Lebanon. According to a report by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Bellemare asked President George W. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, to help sift through communications data in the Middle East. Ordinarily, an international prosecutor would ask the UN Security Council to approach member-states with such a request for technical assistance.

The Tribunal’s official reaction to leaked information purportedly implicating Syria and then Hizballah has always been to neither confirm nor deny — until just after the fall of Hariri’s government. On this occasion, a local television station aired audiotapes of an interview among Saad al-Hariri, a Tribunal investigator and Syrian national Muhammad Zuhayr Siddiq, one of the “false witnesses” whose testimony — since largely discredited — originally led prosecutors to focus on Syria. Among other effects, the tapes contradicted Hariri’s repeated denials that he had ever met Siddiq, appeared to demonstrate familiarity between the two men, indicated that money had or was expected to change hands, and revealed that Hariri harbored some less than flattering views about numerous political figures in Lebanon and abroad (including some key supporters). Faced with a leak that did not jibe with either its current narrative or the previous one, the Tribunal has reacted with uncharacteristic gravity: Bellemare issued a statement promising to “investigate.”

There is the matter, too, that from the beginning the court’s most enthusiastic supporter has been the United States. Apart from having failed to ratify (and later suspending) its signature on the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court, the US government has habitually ignored rulings by the International Court of Justice, violated the terms of some treaties to which it is party and interpreted selectively the terms of others. Given this record, critics argue that the US is less fully invested than other affluent and advanced countries in the very concept of international law and so cannot be trusted to allow these institutions and procedures to run their course. Furthermore, given Washington’s strategic interests in the region, many suspect it has a vested interest in blurring the lines between legal niceties and power politics — and that it has acted on that interest in this case.

March 14 seems to have succumbed at least temporarily to similar temptations. For instance, to defend his attempts to reconcile with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, Saad al-Hariri stated publicly that his earlier claim that Damascus killed his father had been a “political accusation.” Even as they heralded the Tribunal’s neutrality, some of his allies actually crowed that March 8 had rejected a proposal under which the court would only indict minor figures in Hizballah. How such a promise could be made on behalf of a non-politicized court was never even addressed, let alone explained. Another leaked US diplomatic cable seems to establish that Hariri’s defense minister, Elias Murr, suggested in 2008 that he and his colleagues would not mind at all if the Israelis came back to destroy Hizballah — so long as they only bombed areas inhabited by Shi‘a. And on the very day that President Suleiman was to begin binding consultations with MPs on who would form the next government, Bellemare submitted his indictments to the Tribunal’s pre-trial judge, concerns for Lebanon’s stability having evidently receded in importance.

The Road Ahead

On January 25, Miqati was officially named the prime minister-designate. So now the hard part begins. Although he has vowed to form not just a “national unity” government but also a “national salvation” one, the potential pitfalls are many. Lebanon’s sectarian political system always makes for absurd levels of horse trading over cabinet seats, and some March 14 figures have vowed not to serve under any prime minister but Hariri. That vow may have been bluster, but whether or not they remain outside government, many fear that Hariri and his backers will stop at nothing to bring Miqati down — including divesting themselves of Lebanese assets (among them, the national currency itself) and turning loose fundamentalist Sunni militants. Conversely, March 14 might also encourage the US and other Western countries to slap sanctions on Lebanon of the sort that punished the Palestinian population after it elected a Hamas government during free and fair elections in 2006.

As to how Miqati might govern, that will depend partly on whether he succeeds in assembling a broad-based cabinet. Either way, he might form a team of largely apolitical technocrats with a brief to avoid rocking the proverbial boat. In the short term, he can be expected to do what Saad al-Hariri long refused to do: Find a formula that shields Hizballah from the Tribunal.

How to cite this article:

Marc J. Sirois "Lebanon Against Itself (Again)," Middle East Report Online, February 05, 2011.
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