Surveying the Lebanese political landscape today, one can’t help but be struck by the disparity in rhetorical competence between the two major political groupings. If there were a fantasy sports game based on Lebanese politics in which a player’s stock was tied to their charisma and oratorical abilities, how many March 14 figures would you pick for your team?
My contention is that you’d pack your roster with March 8th politicos before finding room on the bench for people like Samir Geagea and Marwan Hamadeh.
Think about it. Whatever you may think of Nabih Berri, Michel Aoun, and Suleiman Frangieh — to say nothing of Hasan Nasrallah, the greatest orator of his generation — is there any doubt that they have a way of connecting with an audience that their opponents simply do not possess? In this respect, Walid Jumblatt’s desertion of the March 14th coalition after last year’s elections cost his former allies much more than their illusory majority in parliament: it also deprived them of their most prominent and effective spokesperson.
This is a dimension of Lebanese political life that most analysts consistently neglect. It is understandable to do so, given the extent to which political dynamics are dictated by factors like foreign sponsorship, money, and the meat grinder of the confessional system that seems to return the same faces to power, year after year.
On the other hand, if public opinion truly did not matter or feature in the calculations of Lebanese politicians, then why would Hasan Nasrallah bother taking to the podium so often, appealing to the logic and sensibilities of armchair generals across the country? Why would Michel Aoun hold multiple press conferences a week, lambasting his rivals in increasingly incomprehensible, hypocritical, inconsistent, but apparently persuasive, tones?
After the events of the past week — which featured a bizarrely brazen assault on Saad al-Hariri’s authority in the form of Hizbullah’s airport entourage — I found myself wondering (as I often do): “What if the tables were turned?” What if Hariri or the Gemayels behaved in such a transparently belligerent way? Would Aoun or Frangieh or Berri just let it slide? Or would they make political hay of it for the next several months? What if one of Samir Geagea’s top lieutenants was accused of being an Israeli spy? Would Nawwaf al-Mousawi waste any time insinuating that the “disease” of collaboration had infected the entire party?
I don’t expect Saad al-Hariri to be a Sunni Nasrallah. He doesn’t have to be a great communicator to be an effective prime minister. His father was not particularly eloquent, but at least he had some kind of… presence. By contrast, the dominant feature of the younger Hariri’s premiership is a sustained absence. If he’s not in Saudi Arabia or Damascus, he’s in Sardinia. When he’s not responding to developments in Beirut through his spokespeople, he’s giving interviews to foreign newspapers. Hariri’s approach to solving problems at home is to cut deals abroad, while his opponents bring their fight directly into Lebanese living rooms.
It is increasingly clear that these opponents have largely succeeded in convincing a majority of the Lebanese public (through a mixture of persuasion and intimidation) that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is bad news for the country. What will Hariri do when Hizbullah demands that the government formally renounce its support for the STL, on pain of a million-man march on the Prime Minister’s office, à la 2006? If he wasn’t able to order the ISF to arrest Jamil al-Sayyed at Beirut airport last week, where is he going to get the muscle and political cover to arrest indicted Hizbullah members, particularly in the face of a well-orchestrated campaign to incite public hostility towards the STL?
In such a scenario, one can only predict that Hariri will fall back upon his tried and true strategy: cultivating ambiguity through absence. But with the stakes so high, a hastily-planned trip to Riyadh won’t do the trick; it will take an absence of greater import. The young Hariri will have little choice but to resign, and one imagines that he may even feel relief when someone calls his bluff.