Saturday, November 24, 2007

Lahoud calls in military, Lebanon on the brink

Tensions increased in Lebanon yesterday, as negotiations failed to break through the deadlock. Lahoud's successor will not be decided before the weekend's close. The now former president called in the military to assert control of the country in the interim, a move described as "unconstitutional" by Siniora, but a necessary precaution by the Opposition.

Michel Aoun's candidacy is up on the cards again, but the government faces a serious paralysis. Failing to elect a suitable Christian head as President, in addition to the resignation of the cabinet's Shi'ite ministers, means that two of Lebanon's largest religious communities (Shi'ites and Christians) are not represented in the positions of power.

The Opposition is exerting maximum pressure, and offering proposal after proposal, to find a solution to the situation ... a solution preferable to them no doubt. Aoun's offer of an interim president appointed by the Opposition, and an interim prime minister appointed by March 14 until the 2009 parliamentary elections, was knocked back again by Hariri. It appears the March 14 is proving to be an incredibly difficult partner to negotiate with. Earlier in the week they derailed French efforts, and since then have not shown any willingness to come to the table. Hariri asked Russia to step in on behalf of Syria to force a compromise from the Opposition, the Russians didn't.

Yet despite all this, Hariri still remains optimistic that a consensus can be reached. Considering he has rejected most of the offerings, I'm not sure where Hariri sees such a consensus happening? March 14 have to be careful that they don't end up being seen as the negative, stubborn partner jeopardising Lebanon's interests. Michel Aoun offered to elect a candidate outside of his parliamentary bloc, that is a massive compromise considering Aoun's well-known presidential aspirations. Jumblatt conceded on Michel Edde, but Hariri and Geagea rejected the idea. March 14 have to bite the bullet and make some strong concessions.

What remains ambiguous is March 14's foreign support. The group angered France during the week, so where is March 14 receiving its continuous drive and determination to refuse every proposal? The United States?

Check The Daily Star's long summary of the blame-game by Opposition and Loyalist MPs.

Christians sidelined?

Lebanon's Christians will join the Shi'ites in the politically irrelevant list as the Sunni, Druze and tribal Christian coalition (March 14) continue to reject a solid Christian leadership for presidency.

The President has traditionally been recognised as a symbol of Christian power in the country, just as the Prime Minister serves a similar role for the Sunnis and the Speaker of Parliament for the Shi'ites. However, Lebanon's confessional parliamentary system provides an extraordinary bias towards Sunnis, who number almost half of the Shia population, but are allocated the same amount of parliamentary seats. In other words, 2 Shi'ites equal 1 Sunni.

The Shi'ites form Lebanon's largest sectarian bloc, but yield little influence in the confessional system. Hizballah never minded under Syrian tutelage, but Syria's withdrawal forced Hizballah to demand a larger, fairer representation in Lebanon's confessional system. This is what the whole struggle is essentially about.

Lebanon's confessional system was drawn up by the French in 1943, and reshuffled at the end of the war in 1990 to suit Syria's then allies - now turned enemies - in Jumblatt and Hariri Snr. However, the sectarians system still fails to accurately reflect Lebanon's demographics. Christians who number 39% of the population, still command 50% of seats in parliament.

Yet the Christian argument is that an electoral law imposed on Lebanon under Syrian rule redistributed Christian enclaves into largely Muslim regions, bypassing the Christian vote. The redistribution and carving of Christian enclaves was to suit Hariri and Jumblatt, then servants of Syrian rule. Obviously, the two have preferred to retain the system as it serves their interest, despite their divorce from Syria. The Christians contend that their political voice is still being undermined as the electoral law does not offer them a fair slice of the cake.

Feelings of despair and political under-representation is what lies at the core of the Shia-Christian marriage into a fierce Opposition, led by the two sects main parties, Hizballah and Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

The Opposition charges that the March 14 coalition is largely a "false majority" as they do not accurately reflect Lebanon's demographics. The charge isn't far from the truth, as Lebanon's political system is still based on an old interpretation of the country's sectarian mix, in addition to the few alterations the Syrians implemented to accomdate their interests.

The presidential issue has raised the climax of the core debate ... a fair balance between Lebanon's sects. The position is sacred to Christians in Lebanon, thus it is fairly understandable why Aoun's supporters (the majority of Christians) feel angered that they are being denied their constitutional right to choose their preferred leader as Lebanon's President. Sunnis do not ask for Christian or Shi'ite input on their preference for Prime Minister, likewise the Shi'ites for the Speaker of Parliament, so why should the Christians consult the other sects for their sacred position ... the presidency?

The main problem for Aoun is that the main opposition he receives to his candidacy is from within his community. His arch rival, minority militia leader Samir Geagea, and the traditionalist Maronite Patriarch Sfeir, have been at the forefront of Christian opposition to Aoun. The Patriarch, though, may pay tough consequences for his rejection of Aoun in the long run. The Patriarch is alienating his own community by refusing their preferred political choice, endangering his power of influence in Christian politics. The Maronite supporters of Aoun are already beginning to feel a sense of disenchantment with their Patriarch, a sign that ought to be worrying to the clergy.

The country is going through a crucial transitional phase where the system will ultimately be realigned to suit today's demographics. Regardless of March 14's objections, room will have to be made in the system to accomodate the Shi'ites and Christians. Indeed, the first to lose out of this reshuffling will be the Druze and the Sunnis, as their representation in parliament will shrink. However, it will accurately reflect their demographics. The Sunni-Druze alliance led the calls for Syrian withdrawal, but they failed to realise that such a withdrawal would also require the removal of all the political gestures the Syrians gave the Sunnis and Druze during their 15 years in power. The two sects cannot call for the head of Assad on one hand, and continue to hypocritically live off the political charities - such as the electoral law and Taef - the Syrians gave them.

The FPM is indeed hoping this to-ing and fro-ing for political power will ultimately result in a secular system where allocated seats are no more. Unfortunately, though, the country must first go through the hard yards to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. Let's just hope those hard yards do not entail another civil war.

No comments: