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LEBANON TYPIFIES ARAB POLITICAL POVERTY

The Daily Star - January 23, 2011

by Rami Khouri

Six Arab countries today – Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Palestine – are engaged in intense domestic negotiations or confrontational dynamics that may determine, in some cases, whether they remain intact or devolve into new forms of decentralized sovereignty or even division into new states in the most extreme cases. A seventh country – Tunisia – is in the midst of an exciting national rebirth whose outcome may well influence other Arab societies to democratize.

The outcomes of these situations all remain unclear, and their distinct transformational mechanisms are very different. Sudan and Tunisia are the most heartening, reflecting refreshing different means of Arab nationals determining their own future. The situation in Lebanon is the most fascinating and regionally relevant, however, because it captures the best and worst of contemporary Arab politics and governance.

The government-formation crisis in Lebanon is dangerous and complex because it is made up, in reality, of six separate issues that converge rather brutally: domestic power-sharing among the 18 Lebanese political, sectarian and ethnic communities; a stand-off between caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s March 14 camp and the Hezbollah-Michel Aoun-led opposition; the incompatibility of a powerful, armed Hezbollah within and alongside a less robust Lebanese state; inter-Arab tensions pitting Saudi-led Arabs against Syrian-allied Arabs; the Syrian-Lebanese and Hezbollah-Hariri disagreements about the indictments and work of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that will try those accused of killing the late Rafik Hariri and 22 others; and the wider confrontation between Iran and its many Middle Eastern supporters and the United States-Israel-led foes of Iran in the region and globally.

Reaching minimum agreement on all six issues is difficult, but necessary, for any progress to happen. The amazing thing about the current situation of simultaneous negotiations, probes, threats, ultimatums, offers, enticements, concessions and delaying tactics is precisely how the many different players and factors converge in this lively political dynamic that shows intermittent signs of success without actually consummating the deal.

Three important speeches in recent days by Hariri, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun clearly drew the battle lines over three of the six contentious issues: the tribunal, the next prime minister and Cabinet, and government-opposition coexistence.

In recent months, there have been intense discussions to find common ground for agreement between the Lebanese parties, above all Hariri and Hezbollah, over the tribunal. This ultimately failed, leading to ongoing disagreement over the formation of a new government. The current dynamic in Lebanon will persist for some time, and will include direct talks among various Lebanese parties, direct and indirect involvement by foreign governments in the region and beyond, and mediation by Arabs, Turks and others who will surely try their hand.

At the same time, we have already witnessed unilateral withdrawals from the Cabinet, bringing it down, and masked men marching through Beirut’s streets, in both cases reflecting the determination of the Hezbollah-Aoun camp in particular to take unilateral steps – in the street or in political corridors – to get their way in the face of what they see as threatening acts against them.

Such behavior has triggered a strong reaction by the Hariri-led, Saudi-supported, American-prodded Hariri camp to accuse the opposition of thug-like behavior. The overwhelming military and organizational power of the Hezbollah-led opposition means there is no longer any chance of street fighting such as Lebanon and other Arab countries have witnessed many times before. The fear in Lebanon today is that political stalemate will rekindle assassinations and targeted bombings, whose main aim would be to push the country to the edge of exasperation, despondency, fear and desperation for normalcy, to the point where external mediators step in again and broker an agreement maintaining calm, without addressing the underlying issues behind the crisis in the first place.

The simultaneous use of negotiations, foreign mediation, boots on the street, media attacks, constitutional consultations with the president, and near-hysterical fears among much of the population about safety captures both the vitality and poverty of contemporary Arab political culture. This is the hard reality of the modern Arab world, at its most extreme limit where all local, regional and foreign factors are in play simultaneously. Sudan and Tunisia, in contrast, offer sharp alternatives to how political tensions can be resolved by coming to grips with their underlying causes. This seems impossible in Lebanon today because of the six fault lines that are operative simultaneously.

Political compromise agreements to keep the country calm are probably the most realistic option for now, which probably means dissociating the Lebanese government from the tribunal. But this merely kicks the can down the road to resurface another day: The core underlying problem of how Hezbollah and the sovereign Lebanese state reconcile their power and responsibilities remains unresolved, as do the issues of Iranian-Arab and inter-Arab ideological rivalries.





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