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A "Karbala" Moment

Hezbollah is the New Government of Lebanon. Now What?

by FRANKLIN LAMB

This observer tends to get a haircut about every four months whether he needs it or not.  But this morning I got more than a trim from my Hezbollah friend and barber, Abass, named after Abass ibn Ali, the brother of Hussein, both martyrs and  heroes of the epic 680 a.d. internecine Muslim battle at Karbala in present day Iraq. The Battle of Karbala, for Hezbollah members and Shia Muslims generally, symbolizes the triumph of good over evil and the willingness to sacrifice ones life for justice and the greater good of one’s family, community or “Ummah.” The reason for mentioning this is that my barber was ecstatic and claims his party has just experienced a “Karbala moment!”

When I mentioned that his statement could be taken different ways, since all the resistance fighters were killed at Karbala, Abass continued:

“Well, what I mean is that we in Hezbollah are pretty well known for kicking and keeping the Zionists out of Lebanon but our Party also seems to be catching on how to work in Lebanese and regional politics.  And our people will benefit as we create social programs and honest government for the first time in Lebanese history. Do you agree that we are beginning play the Lebanese political game pretty well?”

I do agree.

With a speed that surprised many here,and with equally surprising cross sectarian acquiesce  this morning, Hezbollah controls the government of the Republic of Lebanon.

Hezbollah is known for studying political subjects very carefully and being quite flexible when events warrant. Two weeks ago when the Party of God pulled 11 MPs  from the pro-US Saad Hariri government it was thinking about nominating former PM Omar Karami to replace Hariri. The two time former Prime Minister, Karami is strongly pro-Syrian, supports the Resistance and Hezbollah keeping its weapons. He also has zero use for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that will likely indict a minimum of four Hezbollah officials.  Now in his eighties, Karami is still fairly spry and would have assumed the post, if Hebollah formally offered it.

If fact he thought the job was his but in the midst of fast moving events, Hezbollah decided to opt for nominating Nigib Mikati, an American-educated, Sunni billionaire who made lots of money in telecommunications  and a lot more when a South African firm bought  his company. Mikati is not close to Hezbollah and certainly has never been an ally.  In fact, Hezbollah, the Saudis, Europeans, and increasingly the Americans  support Mikati as a World Bank type technocrat along the lines of  former Lebanese PM Fuad Siniora or Salam Fayyad in Palestine but who can hopefully, not just ignore, but help clean up the government’s rampant corruption.   Makati  was elected to Parliament in 2009 on the US backed Hariri ticket. The US would  publically endorse him except for the fact that  Hezbollah nominated him with Iranian, Syrian and Saudi backing. 

Some of the early losers and winners 48 hours following what the pro-US March 14  team and the US State Department  are still calling   “the coup”.

Saad Hariri and his US-backed Future Movement:    Both are big political  losers this morning but Saad still has a couple of important options. For the past nearly two years Saad was told by the US Embassy that Washington wanted him to “hang tough” and refuse to compromise  on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The US conceived and engineered the STL in the UN Security Council to get Syria out of Lebanon and Bashar Assad out of Damascus following the Valentine Day 2005 murder of PM Rafik Hariri and 22 others.  Saad did as told and consequently lost his premiership.  Hezbollah warned him several times that he would be out if he did not disavow the STL which Hezbollah views as nothing more than a US-Israeli bludgeon to try to destroy it.

When the Hezbollah-led opposition pulled down his government on January 12, 2011, Saad was ready to fight to keep his job.  But his US and Saudi backers “stabbed Saad in the back as did some of his closest political and personal friends” according to a Future Movement source.

Both Saudi Arabia and the Obama Administration realized that Saad could not secure the 65 votes from Parliament (they were right — he got just 60) so they decided to let Syria name the non-ideologue,  Nigab Maliki, a personal friend of President Bashar Assad. Omar Karami may have been the first choice but he too was dropped because he also could not get 65 votes and had a checkered past including being too cozy with Syria. The US and the KSA decided better to let Syria back into the Lebanese Government than risk Iran taking complete control.

Saad Hariri feels betrayed by his fellow Sunni billionaire alliance member Makati, who he got elected MP in 2009 on his personal ticket, and their meeting yesterday morning lasted about 11 minutes and was stone cold.  When a reporter ask Hariri if he would work with the new Makati government, he  replied, “What is the benefit of participating in the new government?” Just hours later the March 14 alliance informed Makati that it would not participate in his government.  But both may still.

The Saudi’s are already  encouraging Saad to swallow his pride and cooperate with the next government.  Eventually the Americans will likely also after they get over their shock and sour grapes and Jeffrey Feltman talks with the French and some Europeans leaders this weekend.

This morning  Saad is said to be still unconsoled by yesterday afternoon’s private  session with the  US Ambassador, the  motherly Maury Connelly and repeated this morning that he will not join a government “ appointed by Hezbollah.” But his March 14 movement leadership  is qualifying his rejection and strongly pressing  PM designate Makati to put  in writing for all to see a commitment  that his government will not under any circumstances accept the three Hezbollah no’s. They are:  no STL funding, no STL Lebanese judges working at the STL, and no Lebanese government cooperation with the STL including scrapping the Lebanese-UN Memorandum of Understanding pledging cooperation on such matter as arresting and extraditing those soon to be named by the STL. March 14 is still insisting that their price for participation, including their leader Hariri,  is supporting the STL and government control of Hezbollah’s arms.  They will lose on both demand as Hezbollah will not budge on either.

If Saad stays out of the Maliki government he will champion the STL but he will lose more March 14th support because some of his closest team members are said to be planning to jump ship and to put politics about their claimed  principles in order to grab some well-paid Cabinet chairs.  March 14, via Fuad Sinoria, their Parliamentary leader, is making lots of noise about Hezbollah weapons but it’s largely as a bargaining chip ploy to get good cabinet posts when the time is right.

This current March 14 stance of playing hard to get  suits US diplomat Jeffrey  Feltman, one of the  architects of the  2005  “Cedar Revolution”  and who is currently on his 62nd trip to the region to assure anyone listening that he and the US government “respects the sovereignty, freedom, and independence” of Lebanon, whatever any of those words mean anymore, given US actions in the region.  In Paris yesterday Feltman repeated that there persists mutual French-U.S. concern on how the Hariri cabinet was "toppled under threat and intimidation" and he emphasized the need for the US and its allies to press for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1701 (disarm Hezbollah) and 1757 (indict and convict Hezbollah).

Feltman could be forgiven for feeling a little bit like Saeb Erekat when on 10/21/09  the soon to be ex-PA “ peace negotiator” complained to George Mitchell that, “The region is slipping away like sand through our hands." Feltman, not for the first time, is under great pressure from Washington and Tel Aviv to “do something!” Rampant rumors include one that the US Embassy could be closed if, as expected, the US and Israel launch the expected  massive international defamation and vilification campaign in the coming weeks timed to drive home the expected STL indictments that Washington believes will include key Hezbollah officials.

Syria:  a winner on several counts including having actually  proposed the nomination of Lebanon’s Prime Minister designate Nagib Makati. Syria is urging March 14 and Saad Hariri to join the new government.  If this happens it gives Syria a tool to use to play off what’s left of March 14 against March 8  to reduce Iran’s influence by constraining Hezbollah. With a US Ambassador settled in Damascus after a five year gap, Syria is getting demonstrably closer to where is wants to be.

Hezbollah:  Has the most direct control over the government of Lebanon including the Parliament, the next  30-seat Cabinet, and the government bureaucracy. Contrary to US-Israel claims the party is not thrilled with having the chance to run the government.  Hezbollah  sees itself as  a resistance movement first, last, and always and many in the party do not relish its “pure mandate” being sullied  or getting sidetracked by running Lebanon’s really complicated government. Back in 1992, its then Secretary-General Subni Tufayli, objected to the party even getting involved in Lebanese politics and its decision to do so is one of a half dozen reasons Tufayli left the party. To this day, Sheik Tufayli is critical of the party ever changing its original program and appearing too close to Iran.

Hezbollah will now push its clean government and anti corruption agenda and get it enacted into law but the party is quite content to leave it to others to work constantly with all those self absorbed sects and their leaders. To a large extent it will operate through MP’s who are not Hezbollah party members.  It intends to immediately begin work on improving  the big Four issues that all Lebanese  urgently want addressed: water, electricity, pollution, traffic – also improvement of the environment and jobs creation.

Hezbollah wants to be seen as serving the people while it builds its resistance movement. It is preparing to unveil its domestic legislative agenda which will include most of the ten ‘good government’ initiatives that its ally Parliament Speaker Berri delivered to Makati yesterday.

Hezbollah’s 12-member bloc told  the new Prime Minster that it favored a government of “national partnership,” according to its head MP Mohammad Raad who advised the media:  “Hezbollah did not set preconditions [on Mikati] and we won’t accept such a thing. We did not ask for specific portfolios and we await the formation process.”

Iran: it benefits with important political gains as it continues to rise in the region.

The United States continues to recede in the region and is increasingly viewed, post Palestine Papers,  as the enemy of Arabs and Muslim. Its pariah status grows because Washington continues to prop up, fund and arm the state of Israel.

FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon can is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com