Lebanon in Search of a Government
"Bush, your orders will not be implemented and your tutelage is rejected."
- Hezbollah Deputy General Sheik Naim Kassem, in response to President Bush’s call for Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to ignore the constitution and push through his candidate for president.
Maybe the 11th time will be the charm.
After 10 failed attempts to elect one, Lebanon still remains without a president since the term of Emile Lahoud expired on Nov. 23. The next parliamentary session has been scheduled for Dec. 29 in the hope of finally filling the vacancy.
The stalemate no longer centers on the choice for president, however. Both the opposition and the ruling March 14 Coalition have agreed on the widely respected army chief, General Michel Suleiman. There is also no dispute on the permissibility of him assuming the position. In fact, the government submitted a draft law that would amend the constitution to allow the senior military commander to become president. So what is the problem?
In short, the legitimacy of the Siniora government itself.
The opposition, led by Hezbollah and the Christian backers of the Free Patriotic Movement of General Michel Aoun, believe Siniora has no authority to govern following last year’s resignation of all five Shiite cabinet ministers (the Lebanese constitution requires all sects be represented in the government). As a result, boycotted parliamentary sessions have prevented seating the two-thirds quorum needed to elect Suleiman or anyone else.
Diplomatic niceties expressed over the past month have focused on bringing about political consensus, whereby all parties and interests are faithfully represented in a new unity government. Dig a bit deeper though and you will find what lies at the heart of Lebanon’s political impasse, succinctly expressed by MP Hussein al-Haj Hassan:
"The problem is not with General Suleiman as a consensus candidate, but with a group (the ruling coalition) that changes its political stands according to American dictates."
Since the March 2005 Beirut protests that ultimately led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, the pendulum has decidedly swung in the opposite direction. Prime Minister Siniora along with the leaders of the March 14 Coalition (Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt and Samir Geagea) wasted no time in ingratiating themselves to the Bush administration and steering the country on a decidedly pro-American course.
This new posture was disturbingly on display even as Israel systematically ravaged Lebanon in the summer of 2006 (on the pretext of returning two Israeli soldiers caught trespassing on Lebanese soil). During the war, which killed 1,000 Lebanese civilians, displaced nearly one million people-a quarter of the entire population-and deliberately devastated the civilian infrastructure, Siniora not only shamelessly received Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Beirut, but did so with a smile and kiss. Even after she made it clear the U.S. position would be neither to call for a cease-fire nor to restrain Israel, and despite the ongoing carnage, Rice was warmly welcomed.
More than a year-and-a-half after the war’s official end, Israel continues to take civilian lives. American made and supplied cluster bombs, littered by Israel over southern Lebanon at the conclusion of the war, remain a deadly reminder of the fruitless campaign’s savage nature. For no other purpose than to cause maximum loss of life in the war’s waning moments, nearly four million cluster bombs were indiscriminately dropped on the south.
Of these, an estimated one million remain unexploded, currently injuring and killing children and others who inadvertently come across them. Human rights groups condemned cluster bomb use as a violation of humanitarian international law, and even the U.S. State Department felt obligated to say their use against civilians breached the agreement of sale [NB: A just completed one year Israeli investigation found no contravention in the deployment of cluster bombs during the war, concluding it was a "concrete military necessity."]
The sad legacy the U.S. and Israel have left for Lebanon is the continued maiming of its civilians, mass displacement of its population, and decimation of entire towns and villages along with their roads and bridges. The opposition to the Siniora administration is therefore one that seeks to ensure a voice remains to speak out against U.S. and Israeli interference and aggression, not one that capitulates to it. To guarantee Lebanon will not become a client state like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have, a demand is being made for a comprehensive political package that incorporates proper checks and balances on the prime minister.
Lebanese MP Hassan Fadlallah observed, "Bush didn’t enter a country where he didn’t cause wars and strife. He is trying to spread his experiment to Lebanon."
In order for the present standoff to end, Siniora must first end Bush’s experiment. That may very well need to start with Siniora’s own resignation.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.