Lebanon is hanging by a thread.
The UN Secretary General (SG) Ban Ki-moon has just left the country warning that Lebanon stands at “the brink of an abyss,” and yet the UN itself remains an ambivalent actor in the post 9/11 Middle East setting, torn between its traditional commitments under the UN Charter (including the non-interference in the domestic disputes of a Member State) and the radical imperatives of a US administration.
The unfolding drama and intrigue that constitutes the presidential election process has captured the attention of leaders of the Great and not-so-great Powers alike. As foreign envoys shuttle between the old and new imperial capitals-Washington, New York, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Damascus, Riyadh, Cairo, Tehran, Brussels, Moscow-in a bid to settle the on-going crisis, diplomatic pleasantries have been discarded. The pro-US March 14 coalition partners and members of the opposition are trading insults and accusations of high treason even as they simultaneously claim to be seeking consensus and a compromise presidential candidate. That is the way of Lebanese politics.
The core of the dispute in Lebanon-of which the election of a President is only a part-revolves around the role of the Resistance and the status of Hizbullah’s weapons. The opposition insist that the Resistance represents the only deterrence to Israeli aggression and larger US plans to re-divide the Arab world, and it will therefore only countenance debate about such weapons as part of an internal national dialogue. March 14 call for the immediate disarming of the Resistance (which it considers an existential threat to the State), and the dissociation of Lebanon from the larger regional problems that they claim has stifled Lebanon for decades. A secondary dispute relates to the sensitive issue of who represents Christian authority within the sectarian logic of Lebanon’s political system. The opposition claim that only the Free Patriotic Movement’s General Michel Aoun, the most popular Christian leader by some distance, is strong and independent enough to lead both the Christians and the larger nation. March 14 insist that only one of their own two official candidate-Nassib Lahoud and Boutras Harb, neither of whom has broad national support-should be President.
Right now, the only thing the two sides have in common is the insistence that the other side is carrying out orders from evil ‘foreign’ powers (the US and Israel on the one hand; Iran and Syria on the other). Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are enduring an unprecedented social and economic crisis fueled by years of neglect and exacerbated by the punishing policies of the neo-liberal government headed by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora (which has somehow found time to increase gasoline prices, ready the telecom sector for privatization, and implement US dictates to increase intellectual property rights protection).
The next 48-72 hours will be decisive as the political and constitutional crisis reaches its apogee: at midnight on the November 23, President Emile Lahoud must step down from office and the Siniora government must resign in line with the constitutional process. After postponing the proposed extraordinary Parliamentary session to elect a President twice already, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri has set a final date of 21 November to do so. If no consensus is reached by the 23rd, Lebanon will enter what is commonly referred to here as al majhoul (“the unknown”, which signfies a constitutional vacuum) and the possibility of civil conflict will be very real. Nearly all areas of the country are awash with weapons, and many of the shabab (young men) on all sides have been trained and are ready for action.
Months of discussions and national, regional and international initiatives to resolve the crisis have failed for two principle reasons. First, the Lebanese political system was created with only one ’emergency hand-break’ to halt such crises: sectarian consensus among an elite political class. Failing such consensus, the veneer of democratic institutions-the Constitution, the parliament, elections-is peeled off as sectarian leaders revert to their international patrons for guidance, and otherwise use the politics of sectarian fear to shore up support within their respective communities (something March 14 leaders have drawn on to capitalize on the orchestrated Sunni-Shia’a splits in the region, while opposition in general, and Hizbullah specifically, has made it a priority to resist such sectarian overtones for fear of being drawn away from their perceived main mission: resistance against Israel and strengthening of State under a national banner).
Second, and more importantly, the most significant international sponsor–the US–has thus far blocked any agreement that denies the realization of its own principle goal in Lebanon, namely disarming the Resistance and accomplishing what Israel could not do by force during its July 2006 invasion. US success in Lebanon would also be used to reclaim the initiative in its otherwise catastrophic ‘war on terror’ in the region.
The French have now launched one final initiative with the apparent support of both Syria and the US. Foreign Minister Kouchner has succeeded in pressuring the frail and indecisive Maronite Patriarch to hand him a pre-approved list of some six or seven nominees for president. This list is then to be deliberated by the leader of the Parliamentary majority Sa’ad Hariri (representing March 14, but also the US, French and Saudi interests) and Speaker Berri (on behalf of Hizbullah, Free Patriotic Movement’s General Michel Aoun, and to a certain extent Syrian and Iranian interests) behind closed doors. The Patriarch, until recently, had been deeply reluctant to officially name any candidate in the absence of consensus among the Maronite Christians he represents. He rightly fears that any non-consensus candidate elected-as March 14 has repeatedly threatened to do with US support-would further weaken Christian power in Lebanon, perhaps even permanently.
If Hariri (a Sunni Muslim) and Berri (a Shi’a Muslim) can agree on one of the names proposed by the Patriarch before the 23rd of November, then the election of a President (a Maronite Christian) would be a mere formality and conflict would be averted for now. The crisis, however, would remain, as the two sides continue to lock horns over the formation of the next government (including the appointment of a new Prime Minister), its formal policy statement, the preparation of a new electoral law and eventually parliamentary elections in two years time.
On the other hand, if before the constitutionally required date no agreement is reached between Hariri and Berri, then March 14 (supported by the US) will likely convene outside the Parliament and choose a President of its choice by a simple majority. This will set forth a chain of reactions from the Opposition beginning with a campaign of civil disobedience, potentially escalating to the formation of a second government (or even a temporary military take-over), and ultimately to civil conflict.
It is not clear which path Lebanon will take, nor how the UN will react in case there is conflict. During his two day visit to Lebanon, UN SG Ban Ki-moon met with key players on both sides to push for consensus. He departed no wiser about how to solve this crisis or what he should do beyond making standard diplomatic references to Lebanese sovereignty and respect for the constitutional process. Interestingly, the SG was flanked by two of his senior UN Special Envoys: Terje Roed-Larsen, responsible for the implementation of the divisive UN resolution 1559 that calls for the disarming of ‘militias’ (read: Hizbullah) in Lebanon; and Geir Pedersen, charged with following up on implementation of UN Resolution 1701 that marked the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hizbullah following Israel’s July-August 2006 invasion of Lebanon.
If the SG’s dilemma could be illustrated in an old-fashioned Tom and Jerry cartoon (where an imaginary devil and angel appear as contradictory advisors to the main character), we could imagine over the SG’s left shoulder the UN ‘bad guy’-Larsen, considered a persona non grata in much of Lebanon and Syria for his outspoken positions and clear bias-whispering in the SG’s ear to take sides against the opposition and insist on disarming Hizbullah in accordance with the US neocon and Israeli demands. Over the other shoulder, the UN ‘good guy’-Pedersen, representing the flawed ideals and genuine commitment of an international civil servant pursuing conflict resolution under impossible circumstances-would be urging the SG to seek consensus among the Lebanese, even on the controversial matter of the Resistance’s arms.
While the UN has little decisive influence on the ground in Lebanon, the epic battle between the contradictory imperatives of Resolution 1559 and Resolution 1701 is represents the larger struggle the UN, and the international community in general, has faced since the end of Cold War and the rise of US unilateralism and global hegemony. If Larsen’s influence on the SG prevails in tandem with the US’s continued reliance on military confrontations and divisive diplomacy, then the region will be at war for years to come and the UN as a whole will continue its dangerous spiral towards illegitimacy in a region whose people increasingly identify the UN with US policies.
If, on the other hand, Pedersen’s more traditional diplomatic approach wins the day and Resolution 1559 is consigned to the backburner (at least temporarily if not permanently) it may not prevent conflict in Lebanon but it may yet preserve a legitimate space for the UN to serve as a forum for conflict resolution.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org