Midnight in Beirut

by KARIM MAKDISI

At midnight last Friday night, Lebanon entered the uncharted waters of a constitutional crisis as the outgoing President Emile Lahoud’s term ended without the appointment of a successor. Earlier in the day, the scheduled meeting of parliament to elect a new president was postponed for the fifth time, this time to November 30, amidst an opposition boycott that prevented the two-third quorum required by the Constitution.

Lebanon has now entered what is being called "controlled chaos," a precarious phase in which leaders of both the pro-US March 14 coalition and the opposition have pledged to intensify the search for a consensus presidential candidate over the coming week while toning down the provocative political rhetoric and sectarian venom that has featured so prominently in recent months. This deal has prevented, or at least postponed for now, what most Lebanese fear most: civil unrest which could lead to yet another war. The dangers remain very real amidst claims by the more extreme elements within March 14 that they retain the right to elect a president even in the absence of the two-third quorum, something the opposition claims will provoke conflict.

In the meantime, it remains unclear who has inherited Lebanon’s presidential powers. In his final act as President, Lahoud transferred authority to maintain security and order to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to prevent a slide into what he considered a ‘state of emergency.’ March 14 members, including Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, dismissed this move as legally void, asserting that under the Constitution it is the cabinet that automatically assumes the role of the presidency to avoid the dangers of a presidential vacuum. However, the opposition-which includes Hizbullah, General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement, as well as Lahoud-have considered the Siniora government illegitimate since the resignation of all the Shi’a ministers last November, and will interpret any attempt by the Siniora government to use such authority as tantamount to a coup d’état.

The apparently irreconcilable political split in Lebanon may be illustrated by the debate surrounding President Lahoud’s legacy. On the one hand, supporters of March 14 demonize him for being Syria’s man in Lebanon and for not preventing Hizbullah’s construction of what they refer to as a ‘state within a state’ in southern Lebanon. They trace the current crisis to Syria forcing the extension of Lahoud’s term for three years in 2004 which, they say, precipitated the assassination of the former PM Rafiq Hariri and Hizbullah’s dragging of the country into war with Israel at the behest of Syria and Iran.

On the other hand, opposition supporters champion Lahoud’s seminal role in protecting and defending the Lebanese Resistance, and in particular his legitimizing Hizbullah’s armed presence in the face of unprecedented pressure from March 14, the US and the UN Security Council (SC) via the insidious Resolution 1559 that calls for disarming all "militias." Moreover, Lahoud’s status as former commander of the Lebanese army has solidified excellent relations in terms of cooperation and coordination between the army and Resistance during his tenure.

It is this second legacy which the US and March 14 perceive as a threat and thus share a common desire to destroy.

While the personal and sectarian dynamics of Lebanese politics (including the declining role of Maronite Christians in Lebanon that has so incensed Michel Aoun and even the Maronite Patriarch) should not be underestimated in terms of prolonging the current crisis, it is the larger US project to reconfigure the Arab (as well as larger Muslim) region–and the resistance this has engendered–that has played the decisive role. In this sense, Lebanon’s constitutional predicament and effective state of emergency reflects the US failure to impose its will, and mirrors similarly botched US interference in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

For Lebanon the US project means eliminating Hizbullah, one way or the other, so as to remove Israel’s only genuine security threat and deprive Syria and Iran of leverage in their own negotiations with the US regarding the Golan Heights and nuclear arms respectively.

However, in light of the failure of the July 2006 US-Israeli war to destroy Hizbullah, the US has for now shifted its strategy away from a military solution to co-opting the Lebanese state itself to pursue these tasks on its behalf-much as it has done in Palestine with Abu Mazen’s recent declaration of war against Hamas.

By recognizing March 14’s disputed claims to executive authority (now apparently reinforced with the governments’ assumption of presidential powers), encouraging it to reject the opposition’s repeated calls for a national unity government, and supporting its call for the full implementation of UNSC resolution 1559, the US appears to believe it has accomplished the first stage of this strategy which has focused on removing the Resistance’s official cloak of state legitimacy it enjoyed under President Lahoud.

The second phase of US strategy is to create what the Pentagon calls a "strategic alliance" with the Lebanese army–the only state institution that enjoys broad support from all Lebanese communities, regardless of sect or class– by transforming it into a force that would confront, rather than support, the Resistance. US military aid has been rising exponentially, as has the EU’s; while March 14 has been working hard to install officers loyal to its cause in a bid to reverse the army’s pro-Resistance sympathies.

In this case, the key question is: how far will the US push Lebanon’s delicate system if the opposition remains intact?

All eyes in Lebanon turn now to Annapolis to gauge the likelihood of a ‘deal’ over Lebanon in case US-Syrian relations thaw. However, while Syria influences the opposition’s demands in some aspects, it by no means dictates them. The core issues of the dispute-the role of the Resistance; the sectarian balance; the nature of the Lebanese state; the endemic corruption; the social and economic crises-should be meaningfully addressed by the Lebanese themselves.

In any case, it is more likely that Annapolis will represent another signpost in the US drive to solidify the de facto unholy alliance that has bound Israel and the so-called "moderate" Arab states under US patronage. In this case, it is difficult to be optimistic about prospects for Lebanon or the region.

KARIM MAKDISI is Assistant Professor of International Relations in the Dept of Political Studies and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon. Email: km18@aub.edu.lb


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